|In my previous Analytic Insider, we discussed whether America is likely to become increasingly polarized or could turn the corner and start forging constructive solutions to the many existential threats we now confront as a nation. We all expect that this will prove a major challenge for the US Congress, but the more critical question is whether Americans can begin the process of engaging in constructive dialogues.
If we are to successfully “turn the corner,” then we, as a people, will need to:
- Spend more time talking to each other – not arguing with each other. The purpose of our conversations should be to gain perspective on why others think the way they do, not to impose our views on them. The focus when we speak should be to inform, not persuade. A good way to start a conversation is to ask where someone gets their information. If it is a different set of sources than yours then consider this a great opportunity to learn what data they are relying on to form their opinions. Later you can reflect on whether that data is valid. If it can be challenged, then send them reports or information that points out the factual errors in their data or the faults in their judgment that they can read privately without feeling challenged.
- Stop arguing about “facts” and reframe discussions around positive narratives. What narratives best describe how the United States can best move forward? Learn from the past but focus attention and energy on the future. The metric for successful dialogues will be whether constructive narratives come to dominate our discussions. When you encounter negative, destructionist rhetoric on airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus on listening to or seeking positive solutions.
- Spread the word that cognitive bias is extremely powerful and that mindsets are extraordinarily hard to change.
- Lobby Congress and the Executive to join forces with the major privately-owned social media companies to establish an authoritative set of objective standards for what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media. Create a private-public partnership to establish a Social Media Standards Commission tasked with delivering within six months a framework to establish and maintain a set of standards for both print and images. One model which may merit duplicating is the European Commission’s March 2019 Code of Standards Against Disinformation to which Facebook, Google, and Twitter are signatories.
Get Off the Sidelines!
Pick a topic you care a lot about (education, local infrastructure, voting rights, the environment) and craft your own positive, personal narrative of what needs to be done to make things better. Identify who needs to be engaged and what resources are required to make it happen. Join and/or build a network connecting you with others who want to promote constructive narratives and forge fair and balanced solutions. Make sure your group is inclusive of all views on the topic. Once your “team” has agreed on a preferred, consensus outcome, construct an action plan and generate some indicators to track your progress.
One example of successful public engagement is Finland’s campaign against Digital Disinformation in the schools. According to a 2019 CNN Special Report, Finland was ranked first out of 35 countries in 2018 in a study measuring resilience to the “post-truth” phenomenon.
- In 2015, Finland launched a concerted campaign to advise officials—and subsequently students in grades K to 12—on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral, and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was reformed to emphasize critical thinking. In 2016, the critical thinking curriculum was revised to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe. As one official noted: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.” One caveat, however, is to make sure skepticism does not give way to cynicism in students.
- Another strategy that proved highly effective was to develop a strong, positive national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims. As one consultant explained: “The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law—a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not.” Can the same be said of the United States?
The next issue of the Analytic Insider will address the potential role of intelligence analysts in support of the process of building constructive narratives.