Friday 22 February 2013

The Art of Influence

It's been quite a while since I responded to a Blog Banter. This blog has a fairly focused topic list, and I like to avoid steering too far away from that focus where possible. Blog Banter 45 however caught my interest, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you. The subject? Propaganda.

We all know roughly what propaganda is, although many of us may feel like it's not something that we personally do. In short, propaganda means communication with the intent of influencing wider opinion. Ask someone to point to an example of Eve propaganda, and you'll probably see references to various pep-talks by nullsec CEOs, or perhaps some of the well crafted posters or parody songs used to rally the masses around their alliance banner.

In truth however, it's difficult to do anything in the sandbox without affecting someone's opinion of something. Whether you're posting a CEO update or simply asking a fallen opponent if they happen to be upset about the experience, every interaction with another player conveys some form of message. Even the ships you fly and the way that you act can play a significant part in shaping what other people think about you. There is no do or don't on this one - you can argue about where exactly the definition of 'propaganda' stops, but the simple truth is that your actions will influence the opinions of those around you regardless of whether you want them to or not. The only question is whether you want to understand and control that influence, or simply let it run unchecked.

A fine example of alliance propaganda from the good folks in RAZOR

I expect my bias is already clear; as a writer and moderately influential figure (at least within my own little circle) I believe firmly in the power of good communication. What about you though, my esteemed reader - why should you care?

The answer to that one is fairly simple; just as your every action influences someone, almost all of the information that you rely on to make your decisions will at some point have been influenced - albeit often unintentionally - by someone else. Take the fairly uncomplicated process of planning a route for your PVP roam; how often do you consider factors like who you think is likely to give you a good fight, or where the locals have a tendency to blob you or simply never undock? While these particular opinions probably have a fairly solid foundation in personal experience, they're still just opinions - mushy, subjective feelings about the way things are which may or may not be true.

So let's say you want to start changing opinion about something - how do you go about it? Is it just a matter of telling people what you want them to believe? Not exactly, no. Most people don't like the feeling of being manipulated, and are less likely to listen to you if they know that's your agenda. You also need to consider what your audience already believes - taking an opposing viewpoint and then arguing them around to it can work, but I'm sure you've all been in enough internet arguments to know that they don't always turn out the way you'd hope. In my experience, you'll have a better chance of influencing someone if you can start off from a position that they already agree with or consider true and then frame it in a way that naturally leads to the conclusion that you want. I expect this is all sounding very wishy-washy, so let me give you an example.

Imagine I said to you "lowsec is better than nullsec for PVP". The chances are that unless you already thought lowsec was better, you're going to disagree with that statement. Not only have I not convinced you but I've also established myself as someone who you believe is wrong, and thus made you less open to accepting my viewpoint on anything else.

Instead, let's pretend I said "structure grids are boring and it's hard to get fights when you've got loads of blues, which is why most people consider lowsec better than nullsec for PVP". This time I started off by stating two things that I know most of my audience will agree with, immediately positioning myself as someone whose opinion you support. While those statements don't actually prove my conclusion, the logical leap is small enough that there's a good chance my audience will simply accept it. There's another trick in there too; I didn't actually present the conclusion as my own opinion, but instead attributed it to a vague and non-specific group of people making up the majority of the playerbase. That means that if you disagree with my conclusion you're not disagreeing with me personally - you're disagreeing with the common consensus. We're social animals by nature, and at some level we all like to feel that the opinions we hold are vindicated by our peers. Sometimes you can even get away with attributing an opinion to your reader directly, although that can be risky if you go for something too controversial (bonus points if you can spot where I've already done this).

Propaganda is at its most powerful when you can link it to an emotional response. My previous example actually touched on this too by linking nullsec to the boredom and frustration caused by two of its best known ailments. You don't even need to make an argument for this to work - simply by placing an object alongside something which triggers an emotional reaction you can start to change how people feel about that object. Take a look at your typical alliance propaganda poster and you might see powerful ships or impressive looking people, perhaps with words or graphics suggesting a strength of character or numerical superiority. The alliance in question doesn't necessarily have these qualities, in fact it probably doesn't - most alliances are fairly un-special when you get right down to it. However by placing their name alongside images of strength and power, they're building a mental association between their alliance and those desirable qualities as well as the feelings of pride or awe that they invoke. A similar thing is true for offensive propaganda - associate your opponent with a negative trait such as cowardice, selfishness, or (god forbid) carebearism, and you can erode their reputation regardless of whether those traits are actually present. In this case, it's all about exposure - the more frequently someone encounters a particular association, the stronger it will become. Get it on everyone's lips, and it may as well be true.

While words and pictures can be powerful, actions speak loudly too. Think about how you want to present yourself or your corporation, and then keep that image in your mind whenever you're interacting with other players. If you want your corp to be seen as newbie-friendly, you need to get out there and start helping newbies. Want to build a reputation as someone who always gives good fights? You'd better make sure the people who come looking for one leave feeling like that's what they found. Hopefully if that's your inclination then you'll be doing these things already, but it's important that you're seen to do them too - if you're just doing this stuff without anyone noticing (or even worse, if some of your members are sending a conflicting message) then you're never going to build a reputation for it. Remember; think about how you want to be seen, and then make sure your public actions reflect that vision.

There's a general assumption that propaganda - and by extension, all these other methods of influencing - is effectively a form of lying, or at best misrepresentation of the truth. Again, I think this suspicion stems from our natural aversion to being manipulated. In many cases though, there's nothing malicious or false about it at all. For me, it's really just about understanding how your words and actions are going to be perceived and making sure your audience receives the message that you originally intended, rather than their own interpretation of that message. It's incredibly easy to misinterpret written discourse without the body language and vocal cues that we take for granted when we communicate in person (again I refer you to my point about internet arguments). When you're in the business of passing on information as accurately as possible - which this blog absolutely is - then it's crucial that you get your message across as reliably as you can. I doubt you'd call what I do propaganda, but in essence it's the same techniques simply applied for a different purpose.

So there you have it - my slightly meandering take on Eve propaganda and the art of influencing public opinion. While I'm far from an expert on the subject, I hope you've found it interesting. In closing, allow me to leave you with a few pieces of advice: Whether you're out to change opinions or not, always consider how the message you're giving is likely to be interpreted and where possible make sure it's something that you're ok with. If you really want to convince someone, try to start from common ground and avoid flat-out opposing their view - arguments generate conflict more than they do consensus. Finally, never underestimate the power of a few words to change your mind about something important.

You can read more about Eve propaganda from the rest of the blogging community by visiting the original post over on Freebooted.


  1. I don't know if you intended it, but this brought to mind a certain CSM candidate. He's the one that has mastered the science of propaganda, but not the art.

  2. My fave that's beat-to-shit lately, both IRL and in EVE, make a proposition and label it "common sense", implying that anyone who disagrees not only disagrees with the "common opinion", but lacks sense as well. Double points for tying it to a group or cause seen as victims or underdogs, or doing a favor for the common good: "save the kids" or "it's good for the game".
    Doesn't everyone want to save kids? It's only 22 cents a month, what are you, some kind of kid-killing monster?! ;-)

    Love how that stuff works, and how blind and oblivious people are to it.

    People may not _like_ being manipulated in that way, but it's so de rigeur nowadays, so common, so ingrained in our society, that people by and large have stopped noticing that it takes place. Nor do they realize consciously how big an impact it has on their opinion-formulating and decision-making.

  3. Most political propaganda relies upon logical falicy, rhetorical tools and simple misinformation and misrepresentation. As I have aged I have become acutely more aware of this in nearly all aspects of modern life but what saddens me more is the thoughtless regurgitation of these arguments by otherwise intelligent and rational human beings. This is the true power and art of the propagandist, to make you adopt the opinion he wishes you to have and for you to act upon it without seriously questioning the truth of the premises presented to you and the logic of the argument itself.

  4. I disagree with your broad-ranging definition of propaganda. Propaganda is a distinct word from interaction for a reason--because it carries a more specific definition. Propaganda isn't just communication with the intent of affecting wider opinion--that could be accomplished in a debate--but in a manipulative, likely emotional way. Peer pressure, star/notoriety support, hyperbole, association with other (unconnected) desired emotions/states (sex sells), etc.
    Telling me the true facts about a situation isn't propaganda, it's informing me. Telling me untrue facts isn't just propaganda, it's lieing.

  5. However, telling you information you believe you agree with because I've slanted you towards that bias in a very subtle way you don't see is what makes it an artform.

    It's like what they say about the greatest leaders - the people believe they did it themselves.

    Good blog entry. I really enjoyed it.


The Altruist is the Eve Online blog of Azual Skoll, PVP instructor and small gang PVPer.

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