The Business of Ideas is in Trouble: Re-Injecting Facts into a Post-Truth World
Oxford Dictionary has awarded its 2016 “word of the year” distinction to “post-truth.” Exactly a decade after bestowing the same honor on “truthiness” (a term first used by satirist Steven Colbert) we have moved from a world where facts mattered, to one where facts were flexible, and now to a world where facts are an increasingly irrelevant way of influencing people.
This coincides with an era in which our politics are becoming increasingly populist. And while populism and “post-truth” are not synonymous, they do complement one another and complicate our world when deployed in concert. Political influence has changed and we are no longer in an era where technocrats reign. Elites are despised and the opinions of experts are disregarded in favor of emotions or gut feelings. As the Conservative MP and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove put it, “people have had enough of experts”.
This has been a long time coming. Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm and my previous employer, issues an annual study into the state of trust around the world. Over the past few years that study has pointed to a clear trend: the erosion of trust in authority figures and the rise of trust in “people like me.” We called that the inversion of the pyramid of influence. It means that your neighbor is just as much a source of insightful analysis on the nuances of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran as regional scholars, arms control experts, or journalists covering the State Department. The game has changed.
No doubt many War on the Rocks readers carry out work where influence is salient, whether working on the Hill, in agencies, lobbying and advocacy, journalism, or in one of Washington’s many think-tanks. Having consulted with a variety of these organizations both in London and Washington, I have seen the rise of post-truth and its impact on this sector first-hand and through frustrations voiced by clients. The recent successions of Brexit and Trump’s victory have shaken the Western political establishment. However, as a digital marketer, I’m less interested in simply bemoaning our political status quo and more interested in helping those manning the barricades against the forces of post-truth by empowering them to put facts back into the debate.
While think tanks should not compromise their integrity or the quality of their research, they need to place more emphasis and strategic planning towards how their ideas reach the public. Think tanks have never skimped on the product itself. These organizations seek out the best minds from top institutions and give them support to do top-shelf research. However, when it comes to projecting their ideas into the world their current approach is ineffective and unsustainable.
So how do those of us in the business of ideas do our jobs when facts matter least?
Start Thinking about Everyday People as End-Users of Your Work.
It is time to master the art of storytelling. For too long think tank outputs have been crafted to resonate inside the Beltway and Whitehall. That inherently means it has very little impact elsewhere. Think tanks need to stop their approach of trickle-down influence, whereby traditional media coverage is the conduit through which their work will be condensed and eventually be consumed by the public.
Think tanks must shake the perception that they are soulless, empty vessels for policy and take a page from how many NGOs and charitable organizations promote their work: through constructing compelling narratives. Your latest report on the enduring impact of fostering an innovation culture in defense acquisitions offices might be a page-turner for a nutty segment of the wonkery, but it is unlikely to be interesting to a wider population without an effort to make it speak to them in some way. The findings certainly won’t be consumed if they’re only put out into the world through a press release with an executive summary, a PDF link, a staid roll-out event with a dozen people, and a tweet or two.
For the sake of comparison, look at what Breitbart does. In an interview with Bloomberg, Editor-In-Chief Alex Marlow explained how stories are selected and rolled out:
When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site….Our whole mindset is looking for these rolling narratives.
Writing for Bloomberg, Joshua Green goes on to explain that the alt-right Government Accountability Institute:
builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience.
We may disagree on how fact-based these indictments are, but the result is clear: It works.
For all significant projects and research, think tanks should invest in creating complementary content that is easily consumable, has the potential for virality, and that promotes engagement from the general public. For smaller projects this could be an easily sharable infographic or other forms of data visualization. For larger projects, investment in large-scale campaigns can allow for continued dialogue and discussion that can extend well beyond a report launch.
Some organizations should ditch the idea of a report “launch” all together, breaking larger ideas down into smaller, more easily consumable pieces of content that can be used to string together or storyboard a narrative over several months. While there has been some attempt at this by think tanks in the foreign policy establishment, there needs to be a more concerted effort to produce short-form content that might not hit all the nuances that your major report does, but that tells a story in a form that even those without a Master’s degree in War Studies can engage with.
Beyond simply being fronts of research and data, think tanks should strive to be interactive points of discussion and engagement with the public. For example, the new iteration of the Stimson Center’s South Asian Voices platform, which my firm built, works to bring new voices into the conversation around South Asian security affairs and develops future leadership from places other than elite institutions. South Asian Voices also offers a mass online course titled “Nuclear South Asia,” providing access to research and knowledge to everyone, for free.
Embrace the Web, Even the Weird Parts, and Take Social Seriously
Think tanks need to push their digital strategies to move beyond simply running institutional Twitter or other social media accounts. Twitter and Facebook are fantastic for showcasing your experts and engaging in substantive conversations with fellow wonks, but think tanks should look to use the “weirder” parts of the web too.
While most of us may eventually see viral content on Facebook or Twitter, its genesis is usually on places like Reddit or Tumblr. While there are risks in using these platforms (4Chan in particular is a dangerous place for the uninitiated) there is a ton of promotional value being left on the table if you don’t use these sites. I almost never see experts in the policy space participate in Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) which provide the public with an opportunity to have the questions they’re interested in answered.
Organizations should look outside the “likes” and “followers” metrics on social media. Both Facebook and Twitter, along with other platforms, offer paid advertising options with sophisticated targeting tools, making it easier than ever to reach your desired audience beyond your organic reach. Do you have a report that is relevant to people in a particular region or members of a particular demographic? Why aren’t you targeting them with a small paid campaign?
Consider who you have running your social media accounts. Is it your intern or other junior staffers who have been tasked with this role by virtue of being the only members of your staff who are “digital natives?” While it’s unlikely they’ll do anything embarrassing on your organization’s account (although they might), it is likely they’ll use these tools effectively without a strategy, which may be worse in the long run. Someone can be an expert at driving a car but be an awful navigator. Where is your social media team driving you?
Outreach, branding, and taking risks online can be scary propositions for organizations who, let’s face it, can be a bit buttoned up. Funders often prefer (or explicitly require) that their charitable donations go towards the actual work of research and as such, budgets may not have room for promotional expenses. On the first point, the real risk is falling further into obscurity in a world where substance is trumped (no pun intended) by image. On the latter, we need to start reprioritizing our approach (and frankly, our budgets) to reflect a dire need in the think tank sector.
While everyone loves free canapes and liberally poured wine (or Laphroaig if we’re lucky) after a public policy chat, if we reallocated some of our catering budgets, along with our brain power, to digital strategy we may have a shot at putting facts back on the menu.
Tom Hashemi is the director of We are Flint, a research, design, and communications agency.
Image: Project Manhattan