For this day’s class discussion about Know The System’s political content, special guest Kamran Diba joined Professor Rosen at the front of the class. He was the head of the entire KTS division. Normally there would have been anticipatory fanfare accompanying a visit by such a VIP, but Kam was a friend of Rosen’s, and just happened to be in town, and had simply accepted Rosen’s impromptu invitation to sit in.
Rosen had already finished covering the topics of Government, Economics, and National Issues in the prior week. This week was the fourth and final political topic that KTS was programmed to bother users about: “Persuasion,” about the techniques and tricks of manipulating an audience. This topic had several different facets.
A core of it was psychological bases of ideology. Some voters mentally framed government in terms of parental relationships: for example as a stern father, or as a nurturing mother. KTS also aimed to teach citizens that people with different ideologies prioritized different moral concerns—Safety, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, Liberty—in different ways, and that other people’s ideological views and vulnerabilities could not be understood without awareness of this.
It also was about sensitizing citizens to the variety of ways that political actors tried to manipulate them: through emotion, though symbolism, with fallacious arguments, and so on. KTS was programmed to focus on analyzing the rhetorical tricks employed by their own favored party, to counter the classic “echo chamber” problem.
“These kinds of concepts about persuasion are not very easy to ‘casually’ insert into user interactions with KTS,” Rosen expounded. “Real-world political persuasion usually brings together a lot of changing context, and it’s difficult to get even experts to agree about the facts. So, sometimes KTS tries to interest users in hypothetical, canned examples... Which, though, immediately feels like school, which is a turn-off for most users when they’re just following their own interests.”
Rosen saw that Finney had been waving his hand in the back row. “Yes, Finney?”
Finney’s expression betrayed a bit of repugnance. “I don’t understand – why the big effort to distance people from their own parties? What’s wrong with political rhetoric, if it’s to inspire people, if it’s used for a good cause?”
Vigorous discussion ensued, and most of the commenters pooh-poohed Finney’s objection as unsophisticated. Several cited psychology research about emotion-based “us-them” reasoning that humans naturally gravitate towards. Finally Finney shrugged and grumbled, “I just think rhetoric is a fact of life. Propaganda, even. Seems dumb to try to protect people from it.”
Kam, the eminent guest, spoke for the first time. “May I?” Rosen nodded and said, “Of course!” The room became electrified.
“You are right that persuasion is ubiquitous. But propaganda is different, and it is insidious, and as a society we have an interest in controlling it. It corrodes civil society, in several ways...”
Kam spoke at length about the elaborate systems KTS had for evaluating the propaganda elements of published content, and the rules and algorithms for deciding who should be allowed to see what content and how it should be “framed.” Finney did not enjoy any of it, but Kam’s rationales were very eloquently stated, and he realized that it was not really his place to challenge a man of Kam’s stature.
Rosen later concluded the class with a review of the four political topics. Chun could not restrain herself from raising her hand and, when acknowledged, asking, “Why are these four the right ones? Why not others? Or, aren’t any of them optional?”
Rosen nodded, turned to Kam, smiled, and suggested, “Why don’t you take this one, to summarize for today?”
Kam nodded, and began, “This goes back as far as the 2020s and 2030s, when a body of academic study looked at democracy, and media, and voter knowledge and misconceptions. It was clear that voters were being manipulated by parties and interest groups, and were evaluating policies based on slogans that were...”