The contemporary communications paradox

At a time when the range and nature of communication channels has exploded it has never been more difficult to make yourself heard or heeded.

While we have an increasing number of ways to reach people the reality is that more and more of them have closed their ears and minds to messages which don’t fit with their belief systems or prejudices. It is this paradox that explains much about political surprises such as Brexit and Trump; the difficulty of convincing the minority that keep making poor health choices and of getting the Australians who are making obesity as big a problem here as it is in the US to eat less and more wisely; and why business and political leaders are proving incapable of convincing people that what business and conservative politicians believe as gospel is not nonsense.

Ironically this is not a problem for most of the news media – although they have other problems – because increasingly their content and opinions are packaged, for commercial reasons, to resonate with the specific markets they are chasing. Where they practise novelty it is, as with the Murdoch media, the repackaging of fashionable right wing US ideas (for example the so-called ‘grievance industry’) for an Australian audience which doesn’t closely follow US debate; or with the Fairfax media articles by people such as Ross Gittins who understand the profound changes going on in international economic debate or the investigative pieces on the banks. It is no accident that the exception to this rule is the ABC although even their output, while the most trusted source of news in Australia, is still hated as biased by a minority who read the Murdoch media or don’t read at all.

At a panel at a social marketing conference in Melbourne last week the blog was making some comments about key issues facing social marketers trying to encourage healthier behaviours. The thoughts above were part of what it said but the discussion prompted the blog to think a bit more about why it is so.

It would appear that there are a range of reasons from fundamental psychological ones through to faith, ignorance, wilfully misleading propaganda and what the blog’s friend, John Spitzer, describes as the ease with which people can inhabit bubbles which exclude everything except the conventional wisdom of those who inhabit the bubble.

Some of the psychological ones, such as cognitive dissonance, are mundane and common to us all. We see or hear something and mistake its meaning for something else altogether. The commonest manifestation of this is the way people misread headlines or misinterpret images they see.

Yet today, perhaps for the first time since medieval times, extreme faith-based assumptions and hatreds are also preventing some people from hearing. The blog recently saw vivid examples of this at the Collection Lambert exhibition of the Amos Gitai work, Chronicle of an Assassination Foretold, about the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Part of the artwork uses real footage of anti-Rabin demonstrations with settlers and others calling for his death. Having never seen it before the blog was repulsed but gradually came to think about the footage’s similarity to other footage of bloodthirsty crowds around the world now and in the past.

In the middle of the mundane and the extreme is the overwhelming evidence of the sort of ignorance demonstrated by how most people in the UK, US and Australia over-estimate the number of immigrants and Muslims, and under-estimate the extent of income inequality, in their countries.

But away from the mundane, the middling or the extreme the most common problem about not hearing is no doubt that which comes from the political bubbles inhabited by people like the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, with a little bit of the influence of faith thrown in.

Morrison is apparently part of some Hillsong-type Pentecostal group. If you can believe that sort of stuff it’s easy enough to understand how you can believe that corporate tax cuts are the best way to rejuvenate the economy. Throw in some pugnacious (if often inept) negative political campaigning and membership of a political group which is in a self-reinforcing bubble with various business leaders and lobbies all of which subscribe to a set of ‘free’ market ideas which even Adam Smith would reject and you get the current Turnbull Government playlist.

Much of what they believe comes straight off US-based interest groups’ policy and talking point assembly lines around tax cuts, de-regulation, self-regulating markets, deficits and the problems with welfare spending. It’s the same assembly line thinking which responded to the GFC with austerity and quantitative easing which added to inequality and rejected sensible Keynesian spending on much-needed infrastructure. The same bubble is occupied by his Treasury Secretary, John Fraser, who frequently praised George Osborne’s policies, claiming they showed austerity worked, despite the evidence that they only really worked for a minority based in south eastern England. The new Tory PM, Theresa May, had a better sense of the Osborne value than Mr Fraser and sent George to the backbench. (In a future post the blog will discuss The Economist’s recent six major economic ideas series which puts this assembly line thinking in context.)

It is also interesting that much of the Australian adoption of US assembly line thinking comes along with other US Republican evangelical thinking  and practice – the bit of the Republican song sheet which, along with guns, oxytocins and racism, keeps the poor whites from worrying about what the billionaires who finance the assembly line thinking are doing and allows some Republicans to claim God has spoken to them.

Thus the Australian political/business bubble also contains multitudes of the sort of people – like Morrison- who attend parliamentary prayer breakfasts just as many in the US Congress do.

The Australian breakfasts would, however, differ very significantly from the US ones. After all, in the past when a US Congressional staffer or intern got down on their knees it was understood exactly what the act was for, but nowadays it might accompany a bit of prayer as well.