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We Are All Frank Luntz (and you can too!)

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For those of you who have escaped the name “Frank Luntz” (signifying a certain measure of disengagement from national politics – for which I congratulate you), you have not escaped his brand. He is a political strategist and tactician. Think of him as something in between a mad scientist and a Scythe Lord who the Republican establishment hired back in the nineties to craft the party’s message.

Luntz facilitated the Contract with America, enabled the historic GOP gains in the 1994 midterms, changed “global warming” to “climate change” during the Bush years, taught Newt Gingrich the rhetorical strategy that transformed him from a disgraced former Speaker into a two-primary-winning presidential candidate. He makes a very good living (because he’s very good at his job) connecting the GOP message to a voting public that increasingly distrusts politicians of any stripe. As a political consultant, Luntz figures out what words work; how sentence construction and phrasing combine to win the hearts and minds of the American public.

As media consumers, we all have anchors – people we get our news from and tend to trust. Talking heads directly or indirectly rely on people like Luntz to supply them with well thought out, scrutinized, poll tested, data-backed information about policy; most often slanted to benefit one side or another.

That news, regardless of the degree or even absence of partisanship, has been delivered to the public by spokespeople; experts; dare-we-say “elites.” Authorities on topics not generally well understood by the common citizen.

That is not to say that you are less intelligent than the person disseminating information through the television; nor is the person next to you (though possibly the person next to him). It only means that the person on television, by trade, exists to understand the topic she is talking about and to explain it to you. Unless that is your job too, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage.

For instance, I probably a bit more about sound engineering or video editing than the average Congressman who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Likewise, he’s probably going to have a jump on me as it relates to troop movements in Afghanistan – in which case, I would yield the floor. This is how our mutual dependence on each other’s areas of expertise works.

Before the supremacy of social media, the public discourse was generally guided by the invisible hand of the spokespersons and experts of the world. To be seen on television or read in print meant you probably had some sort of credibility. In some way, you deserved to have your voice raised to be heard by the masses. The average person wasn’t completely left out, but public comment was filtered. Letters to the editor were chosen; the eloquent arguments were published. You generally had to make a good point to be given the microphone.

When reading through the average Facebook posts or Youtube videos, would “eloquent” be the first adjective to cross your mind?

Through social media, ideas are exchanged faster than any form of communication ever before. Without one device or another with a lower-cased “e” or “i” attached, we wouldn’t know how to pay our bills, wish relatives happy birthdays, or figure out how to vote. Facebook and Twitter have made communication magic. Your opinion can be injected into the public square immediately. Click. Done.

That’s incredible.

And dangerous. We love convenience, especially when it saves precious time. Sometimes, that time saved takes away knowledge that must be learned to understand a facet of a complex argument. If you don’t understand greenhouse gases, you can’t have an informed opinion regarding climate change. (It exists, but I get that that’s beside the point.)

If you don’t know what the First Amendment says, you’re not going to sound too impressive when invoking it in an argument (though you have every right to do so).

One needs to possess a firm understanding of a given argument to lean on if they want to have a successful intellectual journey, discussion, or especially debate.

Social media is increasingly blurring the lines regarding who is an appropriate authority in the distribution of information, compounded by constantly presenting us with opportunities to skip the part where we learn something – anything – and, we are often instructed to rely upon our uninformed opinions rather than our acquired knowledge.

Unlike a hypothetical print newspaper featuring credibility deficient authors, social media adds a pollutant that can corrupt communication: access. And the access can spread – we call it “viral” for a reason – from credible and noncredible sources equally. Often, we tack on our own commentary, further spreading the information (or disinformation) we’ve learned (or failed to learn) in a way that further distorts the original message. Much of the time the acceptance or rejection of a message (in an online post or link) is based more on the style we impose upon the message – how we relate to the person receiving the message – than the actual information contained within.

That’s a mouthful, but it means, simply, this: We are all Frank Luntz now.

“In a perfect world, political language would favor those with enough respect for people to tell them the truth, and enough intelligence not to do so in condescending tones,” Luntz writes in his 2007 bestselling Words that Work.

Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and their peers highlight, on a minute to minute basis, that we live in a far from perfect world. It often appears less emblematic of a free market exchange of ideas, and more like a political laboratory where campaign strategists tend to abandon scrutinized, factual information and hope for mass viral assumption on half-and-untruths. And much of it hinges upon tested “Luntzian” concepts.

Facebook, more so than Youtube or Twitter, is exclusive. Your network is the pool of friends that you have handpicked. This can create a homogenized, or self-segregating, pool to reinforce ideas that eventually trickle out to wider circles.

Take the Anchorage Tea Party’s Facebook group, for instance. An April 14th post on the group’s page linked to an article entitled: “Obama Lawyer Admits Forgery but disregards ‘image’ as Indication of Obama’s Ineligibility Damage Control.” The article makes the claim that Alexandra Hill, a lawyer representing the President, conceded in court that Obama’s birth certificate was fake. (Yes, this battle is still being fought.) She did not. According to Snopes, “at no time during the hearings did Alexandra Hill or any other lawyer representing Barack Obama ‘admit that the long-form birth certificate presented by the White House is a total forgery.’”

The court case was a New Jersey challenge to the president’s candidacy for president, but the judge “affirmed no such legal requirement [existed] in dismissing the challenge.”

Groups seeking to use the virality of social media operated under the Luntzian concept of making a declarative statement and quickly moving on. Accompanying the post was this comment by the poster: “Now that Obama has the miscreants and malcontents stirred up via the false racial hype of the Treyvon Martin tragedy, it won’t take much to escalate his thugs into street violence when he is officially determined an illegal candidate. This is getting very ugly and dangerous…and I lay all the fault on Obama. He is a liar, a fraud and an ugly hearted, pitiful excuse of a man.”

So, that took a couple of liberties. From a slanderous claim about a nonexistant forged birth certificate to “thugs” rioting in the streets in support of an illegitimate president in one debunked article.

As Luntz says: “Tell someone ‘two plus two,’ but let him put them together himself and say ‘four’ – and he is transformed from a passive observer to an active participant.”

It just so happens, this person is bad at math and came up with two plus two equals 8,431 and a couple of letters from the alphabet strewn across the floor. But Facebook, by the nature of how it works, puts this message on equal footing with a Brookings Institution study. Unequal footing, if you trust the person who posted it and have never heard of the Brookings Institution.

And when we pass these messages on, we offer them a larger degree of credibility than the 30-second political hit-jobs we witness, ad nauseum, on television leading up to election day. When I post something, I effectively endorse it. I make myself liable for the message. This sort of liability didn’t exist for most people before Facebook and I don’t think that many people have grappled with their exposure to this fact: we are tethered to the things we inject into the public narrative. We certainly don’t behave as though there is any personal responsibility in that arena.

“All you liberals/socialists” and “all you conservatives/teabaggers” often start off statements, providing one glaring mistake, right out of the gates: All liberals disagree; all conservatives disagree on some things. Other than “eagles are cool and the sun is hot” we can all generally find a point of contention, regardless of how we identify politically. So, if I declare in an opening argument that I am dismissing an entire group opposing my view, I’m automatically uniting them against me. Even before I make what I hope to be a convincing argument to bring you over to my side. But, after dismissing you and turning you against me, why bother?

Too often it feels like those using social media are speaking for the benefit of themselves, rather than engaging with an audience who they recognize is made up of sovereign beings and human equals. We’re breaking off into our own Zuckerbergian echo chambers. Perhaps that is indicative of a larger problem of how we are operating on a societal level as extroverts, not often bothering to consider how we address people. Maybe technology is trying to tell us something, or maybe we’re using technology to tell ourselves to reject the disrespect that online interaction affords sanctuary. We need to behave less like the Anchorage Daily News comments section is the goal post for political and social discourse. We need to aim more towards civil, two-way, three-way, thirty-way discourse; as if we were all in the same room, speaking face-to-face.

We are all Frank Luntz now, but we can use that realization as a tool for good or stupid. Right now, we seem to be devolving into a state of nature where we operate communication through social media like a very busy, self involved teenager operates text messaging on the highway. Often after a couple drinks. Either this continues, with casualties mounting and a functional commute in decline – running each other off the road so that communication doesn’t get in the way of self convenience, or we start realizing that with new technology comes a new responsibility and opportunity to learn how to better get along with each other; better craft communication that is inclusive and productive; take Luntz’s message that “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” to heart. And maybe start caring more about what we say and how we say it.