Fear and conflict are effective behavioural drivers. Conflict increases leader approval ratings, while fear drives people to do or accept things they might not ordinarily choose. Both can be used to manipulate you – learn how its done and what you can do about it:

Conflict Encourages Love

Nothing quite boosts the love of the people like a conflict.  From Putin to Hollande to King Abdullah II, conflict seems to provide a quick and noticeable spike to leadership approval ratings.

Beyond the honeymoon just after an election when most leaders enjoy a higher than average approval rating, conflicts appear to make heads of state more liked. It might be an in-group cognitive bias that causes a people under attack to suddenly feel more solidarity with each other and their leader. Whatever it is, it works.

George W. Bush’s approval ratings were never as high again as they were immediately after September 11, 2001. His approval rating was just 51% in the days leading up to the attack on the World Trade Centre, soaring to 86% the week following, and to 90% on September 21-22 – the highest ranking yet for a U.S. president. The record-setting popularity coincided with Bush’s speech to the nation announcing his plans for war on terror (more conflict) in which he warned the population to prepare for casualties.

George W. Bush's approval ratings immediately following 9/11

George W. Bush’s approval ratings immediately following 9/11

The attacks on the World Trade Centre didn’t just boost George W. Bush’s approval ratings, but Tony Blair’s in Great Britain as well. Blair’s popularity had been in a free fall throughout 2000 hitting a new low with the Fuel Crisis. And while it recovered in fits and starts, Blair’s quick reaction to support the U.S. post 9/11 coincided with a 15% surge in approval.  He then enjoyed another double digit recovery in popularity during the Iraq Invasion in March 2003.

Vladimir Putin has enjoyed popularity spikes on several occasions correlated to conflict. The first increase occurred immediately following the Moscow Metro bombing in February 2004. The second peak, (outside of a post-election spike), followed the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008. Putin’s popularity began to dip on and off  again until the annexation of Crimea in March 2013, which saw his approval rating jump 13% over the month before, and up 20% from the months immediately preceding that.

Putin's approval ratings

Putin’s approval ratings

François Hollande’s approval rating more than doubled immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attack, from 19% to 40%.

Likewise, the government in Jordan enjoyed a 23% spike in confidence after the gruesome murder of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of Daesh and King Abdullah II’s public commitment to retaliate.

This spike in leadership popularity immediately following a dramatic event, coupled with the use of a fear as a driver, can induce people to accept measures that they ordinarily would not.

Fear Manipulates

We humans react to fear. It is an arousing emotion, causing agitation as opposed to calm. Arousing emotions motivate us to do or feel something – which is similar to the aim of propaganda.

In one study on the use of fear to induce behavioural changes it was found that “regardless of what the threatened event was or how noxious it was, or how likely it was to occur, the stronger the belief that a coping response could avert danger, the more strongly people intended to adopt the communicator’s recommendation.” Put another way, it doesn’t matter how real or awful the danger, so long as we believe that something can be done to prevent it, we will likely opt for that course than any other.

This strategy worked in the recent Israeli elections. As advanced polls showed, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu was set for defeat. His campaign strategist opted to play on the fear of his loss to surge ahead of the expected victor ultimately by 6%, and moving a full 9% ahead of the polling projections. With Netanyahu’s pending defeat, it was suggested, Israeli settlers in Palestinian territories could expect to be evicted by a Leftist government. Only in voting for the right-wing Likud Party could this danger be avoided. The short week-long campaign of fear succeeded, if the election results are any indication. It certainly galvanized the right-leaning vote in Likud’s favour.

Israeli advanced poll and election results

Israeli advanced poll and election results

Fear can be a powerful driver to encourage us to do things we ordinarily would not. If we are not vigilant, especially during uncertain times, we can easily be coerced into supporting disastrous decisions. The 2003 invasion of Iraq comes to mind. Just two years following the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq was sold to the public on tenacious links to Al Qaeda and a threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Neither has subsequently been proven to be true. Quite the opposite, no WMDs were ever found in Iraq post-invasion. And it would appear that the Iraqi-bred Islamic terrorism, in the form of Daesh, has emerged only in the destabilizing wake of the war. Yet 72% of Americans supported the “War Against Iraq”, leading to a 13% surge in George W. Bush’s approval rating. Such decisions made and supported under the strain of conflict have cost many lives, including U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

What Can You Do?

Use of conflict and fear-mongering by leaders erodes democracy. If voters are manipulated by conflict and fear into taking a particular course of action, their freedom of choice has been compromised. Decision making that has been guided through manipulative tactics is no free choice at all. Moreover, conflict and fear are increasingly used to implement draconian legislation aimed at preventing whatever spectre of threat is put forward to herd the masses.  These anti-terror measures have also eroded the institutional foundations of democracy.

Despite promises to curtail powers once in office, most leaders will not roll back control mechanisms when in power. This places the onus on citizens to be vigilant about the use of manipulative tactics, such that they can maintain an independence of thought in the face of conflict and fear-mongering.

It might sound trite, but stop and think. Below are a few coping mechanisms:

Embrace Loss: Humans are hardwired to want to avoid loss, but loss is part of life.

Leaders use the threat of loss as a means to inspire fear (e.g. if we do not take “x” measure, then “y” will happen.) Try imagining what would happen if the worst came to pass? How bad could it be? Would you survive it? Sure, things could be quite awful, but humans are amazingly resilient creatures. We do nothing if not overcome. The more comfortable you can become with the concept of loss, the less people can use the fear of loss to manipulate you.

Quantify the Threat: Try quantifying the odds of how likely the threat is to happen. Chances are it is nowhere near as probable as a car accident – and yet do you fear driving? Positioning threats in terms of likelihood can help reduce the fear of them – and in turn, decrease your susceptibility of being manipulated through them.

Avoid Media-Fed Conclusions: Before jumping on a bandwagon to war, ask yourself how much you really know about the situation? If the conflict is in a distant place, have you ever actually been there? Do you even know people from there? Do you speak the language spoken there? If the answer is no, how can you be certain that conflict is the best answer?

The media is run by humans, equally as fallible as the rest of us. Most major English-language media outlets share the same few sources, namely news agencies (e.g. Agency-France Press, Associated Press, Reuters etc). The odds are actually very high that coverage on a situation can be distorted as a result.

If media is your only source for information on a conflict or a threat, and English the only language in which you read, your frame of reference on that topic is actually very small. Try keeping this in mind when thinking about the issue or in taking a side.

From Spinfluence - A Must Read Book

Learn more about how Propaganda Works. A page from Spinfluence: The Hardcore Propaganda Manual for Controlling the Masses

Resist the Herd: Through a cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect, we are susceptible to believing what those around us accept as fact. Indeed, the more others around us believe something to be true, the greater the likelihood that we will accept this thinking as truth as well. Studies have shown that this herd mentality is strong enough to affect election outcomes.

Becoming aware of how popular opinion can impact our own perception is an important first step in mitigating its effect. Knowing about our tendency to group-think can enable us to ask ourselves whether our approval of a war, for example, is what we really think is right or is this support driven by peer pressure?

Resisting the herd mentality is an on-going process and one that can create an illusion of loneliness at times, but is absolutely imperative for independence of thought. To step outside of group-think requires constant vigilance, but can lead to great rewards in critical thinking abilities. Make a habit of trying to meet new people outside your existing circle of friends. Try new foods. Read about other places. If resources exist, travel. Expanding your horizons can help mitigate the risk of herd mentality and make the world around you less frightening.

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.