Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What's PD to do with Selective Perception

Interest in communication strategies has driven me to the School of Communication this semester, again, for a class on Communication Theory (very useful stuff, by the way!). Although every single reading or discussion we have had so far can - in one way or another - be directly related to public diplomacy, this week's focus on selectivity and biased information processing was of special relevance, given my previous interest in cultural hegemony and spheres of cognitive influence.

Most of the literature, of course, comes from academic articles and books, but this piece in The Boston Globe covers most of the major points fairly well. A quick intro to the major concepts:

- Selective Exposure suggests that people's beliefs (as well as values, pre-conceived notions, worldview, etc..) guide their media selection.

- Selective Perception suggests that even if people are exposed to certain messages (voluntarily or not, doesn't matter), they filter out the information according to pre-existing beliefs, biases, etc.

- Elaboration (within the Elaboration Likelihood Model - ELM - of communication) happens when messages prompt cognitive responses from recipients, who carefully scrutinize the information, and decide whether it deserves merit based on their prior knowledge and/or experience.

The emergence and proliferation of media outlets (countless, by now), as well as the multitude of ways to personalize content, certainly increase the "risk" of selective exposure, limiting the range of information only to that which reinforces and reconfirms the pre-existing beliefs of the individual. An even more worrisome aspect, however, concerns selective perception: even if one consciously (or forcibly) chooses to expose themselves to a diversity of views/messages, their mind, sub-consciously, filters out the "undesired" information, mostly because of the need to avoid some sort of cognitive dissonance.

This has major implications for communication strategies, especially those based on the hope that "elaboration" will change people's attitudes and/or behavior. As pointed out by Keohane, researchers have found that "Facts were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger." Negative elaboration.

Thus, the strategy of merely feeding facts to strongly partisan audiences can backfire, bringing about the "I know I'm right" syndrome:
If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. [...] Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

The issue becomes even more complex at the international level: even if public diplomacy strategists overcome the issue of exposure (think access: digital divides, language barriers, authoritarian governments, etc, etc...), they are mostly dealing with cultures and worldviews (pre-existing beliefs, knowledge, experience) that are truly different and are, very often, unclear to the communicators themselves.

Image from PRRN Blog.

Many of the cultural "idiosyncrasies" and attitudes are self-driven through the normal processes of socialization and education: they do affect foreign publics' perceptions and interpretations of a state's actions (including its public diplomacy). And yet, in many cases there is also the issue of governments having major "cognitive influence" over their own, or foreign, publics: hegemony.

For example, a recent poll conducted by the Russian Foundation for Public Opinion found that television channels are the most trusted source of news for 71% of the respondents, the vast majority of who pointed out their preference for the state-owned, national channels 1TV, Rossiya 1, and Rossiya 2 (see the report here - in Russian). [Although the numbers would be fairly different across the post-Soviet space, the Russian government inevitably has significant influence over the "minds" of the public in the CIS, even if one disregards the popularity of the Russian media in the region and considers only the historical or cultural-proximity factors.]

That is why, American policy-makers and analysts who are concerned about Russian "anti-Americanism", should also consider the possibility of traditional public diplomacy approaches - "telling America's story to the world" - not only failing, but also backfiring. Given the selectivity discussion above, this can be an even bigger issue in the case of more authoritarian and hostile countries such as Iran or China. (Yes, there are dissenting voices internally, but the discussion here is more concerned with the actual mass publics.) Thus, it might not matter - really - how many hours al-Hurra broadcasts or how many "media freedom" speeches Secretary Clinton gives, when they are perceived and interpreted through lens that are "distorted" by cultural and historical factors.

The theory is not very helpful in suggesting viable solutions to this problem: it calls for a need for further research, etc, etc...; yet, there are aspects of it that can be useful if implemented properly. The ELM suggests that people's motivation and perceived ability to act can bring about a change in the their attitude and/or behavior. In a sense, it is what Keohane refers to when talking about "self-esteem". 
People who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t.

Putting it in public diplomacy terms, it is very important to engage foreign publics in more relational communication - i.e. be much more culturally aware and intelligent (although, I'm using this term here with reservation), and allow for more two-way, reciprocal exchanges. This implies getting rid of the "communicator --> recipient" model and, as discussed on many occasions before, adopting a more horizontal and network-based approach, where all sides are equally empowered and engaged, actively participating in the communication process. (Image from Amazon.)

Not only will this help to inform the American people, and more importantly- public diplomats, about the potential limitations of their communication (as they learn through the exchange process), but it can also give them access to those "pre-conceived notions and beliefs" held by foreigners, who will feel much less "insecure or threatened" (in Keohane's words) thanks to the trust and mutuality that form the foundation of such a relationship. And even if this mode of communication does not change their behavior or attitude, it will make them listen and elaborate, instead of filtering everything out.

All that, provided that policies follow the promises. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words.


More thoughts on media diversity and consumption from last year:

- The recurrence of the "gramophone mind"
- Hope for a better-informed global media consumer

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