Perceived trustworthiness: How the most basic persuasion tactic is dividing democrats.

The world is full of people wanting to sway us to their point of view. And we know that opinions (especially political) are rarely ever changed by arguments with others. It’s the arguments we don’t know we’re having that are the most persuasive— and, of course, we are most susceptible to influence when we are most unaware it is happening.

Methods of persuasion are used all the time, direct and indirect, for good and for bad; but I want to talk about one tactic in particular rearing its head this election cycle. Perceived trustworthiness. 

What makes us trust someone? All kinds of factors play in. Perceived expertise. Likability. Attractiveness is a factor (it definitely shouldn’t be; think Ted Bundy). But the easiest way to gain someone’s trust on-line is commonality— we trust people who think like us, and we listen to opinions held by those in our in-groups (while easily dismissing those of outsiders).

So, how do you influence a Democrat? Well, you pretend to be one.

What signals group belonging more than an I LOVE JOE Facebook banner? I mean— how many Democrats hate Joe Biden? Very, very few. So hey, we love Joe. We’re both Democrats— we’re on the same team. And what better signal that this person is on the side of good than a smattering of “Fuck Trump” memes? 

That’s well and good. But ask yourself, are these people (along with their Fuck Trump memes) sharing articles from questionable sources or pushing unfounded theories about campaign funding? Do you routinely find them on political threads pushing conspiracy theories or bashing Democratic candidates? Is their Facebook page relatively new (created in the past few years)? Are their posts mostly, if not all, political? Do they make comments that are racist, sexist, or homophobic? Do you, or anyone else on your friends list, actually know who this person is?

If anything here is ringing a bell, you may not be friending Democrats. They may not even be American. These profiles use their perceived trustworthiness to gain access to you, slip into your friends list, and hack away at liberal democracy from within. 

Once in, they share articles geared to spread mistrust and division. They back one specific candidate at the expense of all others (e.g. “Bernie bots”). They push a false equivalence narrative (e.g. Hillary is as bad as Trump). They tend to post comments or pictures that portray candidates as unlikable, unattractive, corrupt, or dishonest. And of course it’s safe to hear these people out. Because, they’re liberals after all— so at heart they care about the same things we do. That’s the assumption, anyway, and that’s the very subtle genius of it. 

An assumption is something you don’t know you’re making.

I’m not saying there aren’t real American liberals who bash Democratic candidates — there are plenty of those, I’ll get to them in a second — I’m talking here about the ones you don’t personally know. The ones you’ve never met. If you often find yourself on Facebook wondering “who the hell is this person on my thread?” That might be a useful question for all of us to be asking right now.

Because the more friends a fake profile has, the more credibility they gain (especially if they have liberal friends in common with you). For a majority of people, all it takes is one mutual friend for someone to accept a friend request from a stranger.

Apparently we need to be reminded (in our dotage) of what our mothers used to tell us: Don’t trust anyone you don’t know. Yes, even if they have Joe Biden’s face and blue stars and donkeys all over their page (actually, especially if they have those things). If a JOE BIDEN or IMPEACH TRUMP banner is all a bot needs to get their foot in our door, we’re pretty well screwed.

Have you seen any comments similar to what I’ve seen in the past few days?

“I’d rather stay home than vote for Elizebeth Warren.” 

“Kamala is Trump in a skirt.” (wha??)

“I WILL NEVER VOTE FOR MAYOR BUTT BOY”.

If so, vet the hell out of these people. If they look fake, delete them. If you’re convinced they look real, delete them anyway. Here’s why:

You’re not going to change this person’s point of view, but you can keep them from using your page as a platform. You can take away the credibility they gain by having you as their Facebook friend. We can chip away at their perceived trustworthiness. It’s a small action, but small actions can make a big difference if enough people sign on.

Some may not like the idea of deleting any Facebook friends over politics. Some may say that negative press from other Democrats doesn’t move the needle. I’m smart. My friends are smart. They won’t be swayed to stay home on election day by a few crazies commenting on my page.

If these are your thoughts, you’re counting on your friends not being human. It’s our nature to listen to opinions floating around our in-groups. We absorb the opinions of those around us whether we’re trying to or not— it’s a survival mechanism (those who don’t go along to get along get ousted from the clan; those without the clan’s protection are subsequently devoured by wolves; safety in numbers etc. etc.). In social psychology it’s called group effect – the power of the group to shape the thoughts and opinions of its members – and thinking it can’t affect us is precisely the mistake that ensures it will.

If enough liberals (real or perceived to be real) repeat mantras like “Kamala Harris was a cop,” or if enough people say that Mayor Pete is a religious nut-job, it will divide liberals. It already has. I’ve seen supposed-liberals push the narrative that Kamala “slept her way to the top.” If we see enough negative spin from in-group members about our own candidates, it does create a change in the water. The poison in the well. It starts on the fringes, and worms its way into the mainstream discourse because we allow it.

Whether you support Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Joe Biden there is only ONE banner Democrats can trust going forward, and that is “vote blue no matter who.” 

And now, we wait for 2020, and try not to let any more foxes into our chicken coops.

Author: Maria Jacqueline Hauser

Maria Jacqueline Hauser is a writer and Shakespeare scholar from Jackson, Mississippi.