What Bloggers Can Learn From Fringe Nutters (About How To Not Be One)

When I'm bored or looking for a short break from work, I scan the web for conspiracy theories, sites on crypto-zoology, and tales of the paranormal. I'm not a believer, really I'm not. I categorically do not believe in ghosts, space aliens, bigfoot, or a New World Order 9/11 plot. But something in my constitution is drawn to those who do. Thank God for the internet (and Foucault's Pendulum). (This is going somewhere, I promise.)

Tonight I found the website conspiracyarchive.com, and I ran across an article called "The Delphi Technique: How To Achieve A Workable Consensus Within Time Limits" The article describes a Delphi method, supposedly developed by the RAND Corporation "for the purpose of maneuvering segments of the public into accepting predetermined government policies." (I say "supposedly;" RAND employees did identify a "Delphi effect" leading to a "Delphi method," but Wikipedia describes it as something less sinister than the conspiracy archive would have it.)

Stripped of its nutty crust, the article describes a method for getting a group of people to agree with you without them realizing that you have steered them to a conclusion. It's nothing especially clever:

The "change agent" or "facilitator" goes through the motions of acting as an organizer, getting each person in the target group to elicit expression of their concerns about a program, project, or policy in question. The facilitator listens attentively, forms "task forces," "urges everyone to make lists," and so on. While she is doing this, the facilitator learns something about each member of the target group. He/she identifies the "leaders," the "loud mouths," as well as those who frequently turn sides during the argument ­ the "weak or non­committal."

Suddenly, the amiable facilitator becomes "devil's advocate." He/she dons his professional agitator hat. Using the "divide and conquer" technique, he/she manipulates one group opinion against the other. This is accomplished by manipulating those who are out of step to appear "ridiculous, unknowledgeable, inarticulate, or dogmatic." He/she wants certain members of the group to become angry, thereby forcing tensions to accelerate. The facilitator is well trained in psychological manipulation. S/He is able to predict the reactions of each group member. Individuals in opposition to the policy or program will be shut out of the group.

Again, not very exciting. But then there are the author's three "steps" to beating the Delphi method. Before quoting them, I'll go ahead and let you know where I'm going with this. These tips are, to my mind, a near-perfect guideline for political blogging and commenting, and maybe for arguing generally.

  1. Always be charming. Smile. Be pleasant. Be Courteous. Moderate your voice so as not to come across as belligerent or aggressive.
  2. Stay focused. * * * Facilitators, when asked questions they dent want to answer, often digress from the issue raised and try to work the conversation around to where they can make the individual asking the question look foolish or feel foolish, appear belligerent or aggressive. The goal is to put the one asking the question on the defensive. Do not fall for this tactic. Always be charming, thus deflecting any insinuation. Innuendo, etc. that may be thrown at you in their attempt to put you on the defensive, but bring them back to the question you asked. If they rephrase your question into an accusatory statement (a favorite tactic) simply state, "That is not what I stated. What I asked was... [repeat your question.]" Stay focused on your question.
  3. Be persistent. If putting you on the defensive doesn't work, facilitators often resort to long, drawn out dissertations on some off­the­wall and usually unrelated or vaguely related subject that drags on for several minutes. During that time, the crowd or group usually loses focus on the question asked (which is the intent). Let them finish with their dissertation or expose. Then nicely with focus and persistence, state, "But you didn't answer my question. My question was...[repeat your question.]"

The author needs an editor, methinks (but then, I probably do too). But the points are good: be composed, decide for yourself what you'll be talking about, and then stay on message.

I know that there's a school of blogging that encourages us to be OUTRAGED! ALL! THE! TIME!, and I do believe there's a place for that (I'm sure someone will describe that place in the comments). But I don't think people who blog that way change minds. To frame it in terms of the conspiracyarchive.org version of the Delphi method, those bloggers are either "the 'leaders,' the 'loud mouths'" on the majority side or the "ridiculous, unknowledgeable, inarticulate, or dogmatic" malcontents in the minority.

These roles should sound familiar to consumers of the political blogosphere. They should also be avoided. If you blog about politics, you do it because there are things—real things—that matter to you. To get those things done (or voted on, or boycotted, whatever), you've got to be an effective advocate for your position. How effective can you really be when you're agitated, distracted, or irresolute?


One of my favorite blogs to read

is FireDogLake. I don't visit as often as I used to because of the anger factor. I enjoy sarcasm and wish I could pull it off a bit better, but it does tire you out when it's almost always full force.

I have to admit I do my best writing when I'm angry. I also have to admit I rarely keep quiet when a troll is on the prowl. Oh well....

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

The time to express anger and outrage

is right before your head explodes from actually thinking about the disasters being intentionally created by your adversaries. Because if your head explodes, you're good for nothing. That's what happened to all of the equivocators in the middle. Somewhere along the way their minds snapped into nothingness, giving them the amazing grace to ignore willful evil and happily slide along humming 'que sera, sera.' The sad part is that this "middle" is so easily manipulated by sound bites and cheap tricks. And the saddest part is that wingers happen to be masters of sound bites and cheap tricks.

I personally don't have the patience to convince the muddled middle about anything. They mostly just piss me off. I know that makes me ineffective in the persuasion department, but I don't think most people out here on the internets are open to reconsidering their positions. For example, what's the point of engaging with the Puppets on issues? They're so closed to other points of view that their blogs don't even allow discussion!

You're right on

about the lack of discussion. It's diasppointing that the Locker Room doesn't allow reader discussion, and I think it cuts in to the effectiveness of their site. But consider how close elections commonly are, now. How many do we really need to convince?

And the answer is . . .

not many. In fact, I remember during the last presidential campaign that the media had a helluva time finding undecideds. That's when I lost anything resembling tolerance for the muddled middle. For any human being to actually be on the fence between Bush and Kerry boggles my mind.

Great post, by the way. I appreciate the links.

Ah, yes: the Undecided

It would be a good movie title, "the Undecided." I've spent a lot of time thinking about that demographic, and here's where I think I've finally come down: they must be those people who don't have the time to care much about politics, and who don't run in circles where politics comes up. I'm thinking of my mother-in-law. Politics is not a polite topic of conversation. I'm also picturing a harried soccer mom who has to have priorities. Maybe that's not who these people are, but I can imageine them coming from these groups.

I think that for them remaining undecided—that is, not picking a candidate or side out of allegiance to a party name or according to a spouse's predilections—is an act of independent thought, and maybe even a little courageous. Of course, I don't think those people read this site.

(I have also suspected that the Undecided are just people who want to be on TV. There was at least one occasion during the lead up to the 2004 election on which a young GOP operative found his way on to an "Undecided" panel, I think following one of the debates.)

You're right.

They are all this and more. Which scares the shit out of me, because these are the people who tilt the balance of power . . . often based on whether they liked the color on the bumpersticker they last saw.