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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

What America’s vote tells us about the myth of influence

The influence industry has lost its potency and can do little but reinforce beliefs that are already firmly held

These past four years, you may have heard that Russia helped Donald Trump steal the American presidential election in 2016. You may have heard this from such venerated figures that you may even think of it as an indisputable fact. There was no “Russian influence" this time, but the race was very close, and very similar to 2016’s. So what was all the noise about?

American voters have not transformed in these four years. Trump voters have largely remained so, and most of those who despise him or his party have not found a reason to like him. For years, Democrats have won the popular vote, and that has continued, but the new President, as in 2016, has won narrowly. If everything is almost the same, what exactly was the use of all that was done and said since 2016? What did all those impassioned writers, activists and demonstrators achieve?

That some people influence most people is one of our most influential ideas. This was true until recently. A handful of journalists, scholars and activists could influence vast millions. But the age of influence is over, and the US of 2020 presents further evidence.

People find the news they want to believe and the views they already subscribe to. We are in a world where prophets don’t create religions; rather, religions appoint prophets who have the right attributes. The influencer does not influence anymore; rather, the influencer is the mascot of an idea that has already taken root due to a complex web of economic, racial and psychological reasons.

We have moved from the age of influence to the age of corroboration. In public life today, success is a reward for figures who can validate a delusion, or a bias. People who are objective and do not have extreme views are doomed to be modest transmitters of ideas. They will be healthy for the world, of course, like boiled cauliflower, and as popular.

Yet, influence is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is a force that emanates from the long tail of politics, funding thousands of non-electoral politicians masquerading as journalists, economists, seers, patriots and humanitarians.

How do people arrive at a belief? We assume that people argue with themselves before acquiring it. We presume people consider various facts and opinions and make a Solomon-like judgment after hearing all sides. This is the most erroneous image we have of ourselves. The fact is we believe first and then seek arguments to substantiate that belief. In the older world, where a small bunch of elite males controlled the media, the influential could infuse both the belief and the arguments. But in a changed world, where hyper-democracy has created a wide spectrum of beliefs, the influential have been reduced to corroborators.

Even fake news is popular not because it is transformative, but because a section of society wants to believe it. As this column once argued, Trump did not succeed because of fake news; rather, a piece of fake news succeeded because of Trump. Conspiracy theories, too, exhibit this character. They do not infect everyone equally. Some people are prone to a particular kind of conspiracy theory that corroborates an entrenched belief, while others are immune to it. The immune feel intellectually superior, but they do not realize they are marinating in a different set of conspiracy theories. The most effective of these do not look like one—for instance, the theory that Russia stole the last US election. This theory was appealing to the old American mainstream media because it gave them an honourable reason why they had not anticipated a political revolution. Now a segment of America’s liberal media appears to concede that the Russian angle was overplayed.

In September, The New Yorker magazine ran an article titled, ‘Is Russian Meddling as Dangerous as We Think?’ “There’s nothing inherently foreign about the rise and spread of disinformation. Using the Russian word dezinformatsia doesn’t make the practice any different from homegrown falsehoods spread online by Americans targeting other Americans." The article does not dispute Russian attempts, but dismisses their impact as inconsequential.

In a world where propaganda does not transform people the way it used to, and opinions appear to be innate and immutable, are political campaigns still relevant ? Intuitively, I cannot accept that there remains a person in the US who sees an ad or hears a speech or reads a piece of news and switches his or her political loyalty.

American campaign managers accept that their field of influence has shrunk significantly over the years. They say that their job now is to try influencing just a small fraction of the electorate who are impressionable because most voters are beyond transformation. But they claim that the millions of dollars that political parties spend on campaigns and influence is worth it because just a few thousand votes decide the fate of a presidential election. We will, however, never know how effective organized influence is on a few thousand undecided voters.

What is more influential than organized campaigns is banal hatred. You may argue that the influence industry peddles negativity, but discreet, private hatred is different from the broad conceptual hate that the influence industry sells. For instance, the hatred that many men harbour for articulate women like Elizabeth Warren, or for the trappings of sophistication. In the same way, many voters despise the sanctimonious intellectual so much that even when he or she says what is right, they develop an affection for the exact opposite.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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