This case study focuses on the persuasiveness of fear based appeals in Web messages. A content analysis by research colleagues Moran et al., helps evaluate communications techniques used to examine the latitude for acceptance of audiences when fear based appeals are encountered. In their research, a content analysis of techniques used on health communication Web sites is explored (Moran et al., p.151). Specifically, this case study will discuss what kind of user interactivity makes Web site messaging persuasive?
Web site persuasion, the need for effective user engagement, and an analysis of fear based appeals is central to the discussion. The case study also draws on the analysis of research colleagues, Oh and Sundar, who use the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) to analyze the means of persuasion within ideological Web sites. Additional research is useful to investigate the impact of Web site interactivity. The context offers an assessment of Web messaging, including the goals and design of Web based fear appeals by those in the Alt-Right movement.
The Alt-Right is by definition a primarily online movement that stands against mainstream conservative politics. Their messaging is aimed primarily at working class whites, like those who supported the presidential bid of Donald J. Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate organization, describes the movement as a number of groups and individuals, who embrace far right (or alt-right) ideologies, and who think their core beliefs are being attacked by multi-cultural groups. The Alt-Right is said to believe left-leaning groups are using political correctness and “social justice,” to undermine their people and their society” (staff writers, news.com.au, 2016).
So when did this term first appear? The term first appeared in 2008 when Richard Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, defined America in his speech as a “white country designed for ourselves and our prosperity. It is our inheritance and belongs to us” (staff writers, news.com.au, 2016). The Alt-Right movement grew exponentially during the 2017 presidential election of Donald J. Trump, who is described as one of their heroes (staff writers, news.com.au, 2016).
The fact that social media is programmable and is changing how we use and interact or remediate text has important implications for the agenda of the Alt Right. For example, The Reddit Web site, with its ties to the Alt-Right movement and Breitbart News, is described as being 300,000 strong (staff writers, news.com.au, 2016). Today, we are constantly interacting in some way with social media, and whether we are browsing and interacting with text or memes, or other cultural cues, the design of the Web site, not just the message, is important to how we use and interact with Web content.
As an example of the Alt-Right’s use of computer mediated messaging, an evaluation by Aja Romano offers insights for how sexism is used to lure men into white supremacy. He reveals how computer mediated communication is helping the Alt-Right complete a fully online indoctrination process. Romano explains how online communities, like Reddit, are pushing alt-right ideology. These groups, he says, are distrustful of feminist empowerment and promote its disempowerment of men. They are, Romano says, both racist and misogynistic in their point of view (Romano, p.2). It is an “insidious process by which young men are radicalized” (Romano, p.3). United initially in a bid to foster new friendship, these men begin to engage one another in what some call the “manosphere” only to find themselves indoctrinated into the alt-right belief and goal to establish “a complete white ethno-state” (Romano, p.2). Trump won the presidential election arguably by playing to the alt-right’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric.
Likewise, Oliver Willis, research fellow for Media Matters, citing Buzzfeed, describes alt-right beliefs by saying, “In short, its white supremacy perfectly tailored for our times: 4chan-esque racist rhetoric combined with a tinge of Silicon Valley–flavored philosophizing, all riding on the coattails of the Trump boom” (Willis, p.1). A detailed list of Web sites, currently using fear based appeals to push the alt-right point of view online, is provided by Willis. The list includes:
Breitbart is the “gateway” or information nucleus to the movement, promoting its ideas and disseminating its message throughout the movement. Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief advisor, took over as chairman of Breitbart after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart. The site is anti-immigrant in tone, pushes conspiracy theories, and attacks republicans who do not agree with its white-nationalist message. Willis describes Breitbart as essentially functioned as an anti-immigration pressure group during Trump’s election, signaling to Republican leaders that any deviation on immigration would earn them the wrath of the base. According to Willis, “Bannon wrote a column on the site accusing the “left” of engaging in a “plot to take down America” by focusing on police shootings of African-Americans” (Willis, p.6).
Alternative Right site
This alt-right ideology supporting Web site is operated by Richard Spenser, who is the founder of the conservative think tank – National Policy Institute (NPI). A contributor to the Web site, Jason Richwine, co-authored an immigration report at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which said Hispanics had lower IQs than whites. Breitbart has included Richwine’s work in its publication and Bannon praised him on his radio show (Willis, p.6).
This white-nationalist online magazine is published by Jared Taylor, who according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “believes black people are genetically predisposed to lower IQs” than whites and that blacks “are sexually promiscuous because of hyperactive sex drives” (Willis, p.8). In addition to his online fearmongering pursuits, Taylor makes his rounds on the talk show circuit, where he takes homage to the likes of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Taylor, Willis says, is a self-described Trump supporter who advocates sending all non-white immigrants home (Willis, p.8).
Described as “an anti-immigration hate Web site” with a white-nationalist ideology, this site is said to “regularly publish articles by prominent white-nationalists, race scientists and anti-Semites.” The site was founded by Peter Brimelow, who believed “the Republican Party should seek to attract white voters only rather than trying to attract minorities” (Willis, p.8). According to Willis, “VDare.com was featured at the Republican National Convention when a tweet from the outlet was put on screen in the arena during the roll call vote for Trump’s presidential nomination” (Willis, p.8).
This neo-Nazi Web site is headed by Andrew Anglin, who is a regular defender of Adolf Hitler and who routinely documents what Willis describes as “the purported Jewish Problem” (Willis, p.9).
The Political Cesspool
Online Web sites often feed white-nationalist radio programs like this one, hosted by James Edwards. The primary goal of the program is to restore the white birthrate to previous levels. Willis says, the show was given “…press credentials by Trump’s campaign for a Tennessee campaign rally. It also was given “all-access” credentials to the Republican National Convention, where the show interviewed a Trump adviser and Republican congressmen” (Willis, p.9-10). Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., who expressed agreement with Edward’s opposition to political correctness, also was interviewed on the show (Willis, p.9-10).
The Right Stuff
This anti-Semitic blog is described as having an affiliated podcast called The Daily Shoah. Run by Mike Enoch, its goal is ethno-nationalism. Willis says, “The site created a meme called the “parenthesis meme” in which Jewish names are surrounded by parentheses, often in order to target them for online abuse on social media: “(((name)))” Willis says the Anti-Defamation League now includes the symbol in its database list of hate symbols. Willis cites CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, as saying, “The echo symbol is the online equivalent of tagging a building with anti-Semitic graffiti or taunting someone verbally” (Willis, p.10). Enoch is quoted as having said, “Breitbart “is the closest thing to sympathetic to our position that is out there in the mainstream” (Willis, p.10).
Danger & Play
Alt-right activist Mike Cernovichan operates this Web site. Willis says, “The site publishes numerous articles, essays, and audio recordings that attack feminists, “SJWs,” (social justice warriors) and disputes the validity of date rape claims” (Willis, p.11). Cernovich has dismissed the possibility of date rape, writing, “the hotter the sex, the more closely it resembles rape,” “the only rape culture is Muslim rape culture,” and asking, “Why should I care when women are raped” (Willis, p.11)?
Another popular Web site of the Alt-Right, not mentioned in the Willis article, is Reddit. This site also promotes the dark sub culture of the Alt-Right. Both Reddit and the 4Chan media outlet are said to have ties to Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute (staff writers, news.com.au, 2016). Brian Feldman disclosed in his article that communication by the Alt-Right was recently banned from Reddit due to policy violations and the disclosure of user’s personal information (Feldman, p.1).
According to Willis, Radio Personality Rush Limbaugh, said regarding the rise of the Alt-Right, “There is a thriving youthful conservative emergence happening in this country. They may be borrowing from what’s going on in Europe” (Willis, p.12). The question is, how did the Alt-Right become so effective in delivering online fear based messages and why were these messages so acceptable to its intended audience?
Analysis of the Outcome:
Web sites featuring alt-right ideology are trying to get Web users to oppose or change their minds about what it views as a liberal elitist agenda and to embrace economic- and, in many cases, ethnic-nationalism. The Web campaigns of the Alt-Right question the validity of opposing opinions like immigrant rights within its messaging. But it’s not just about saying the right words and getting people to believe you. Message exposure is just one variable among others that lead to changes in behavior.
For example, Emma Ellis tells us, in an article about how the Alt-Right grew, new members can be solicited both actively and passively online. For instance, Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof is described as having been searching for information on “black on white crime” when he inadvertently ended up on the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ Web site, where he proceeded to radicalize himself (Ellis, pg.4).
If the goal is to persuade, the research of Oh and Sundar is vital to understanding the impact of Web site interactivity to explore the implications of fear based appeals by the Alt-Right. These research colleagues assert “Certain features of Web sites can influence users’ central and peripheral processing.
Those who received a high fear message were in evaluation found to engage in more peripheral processing (superficial engagement) vs. central message processing (deep engagement), or deep thinking (Oh and Sundar, p.875). The outcome for peripheral messages is said to be fear. (Oh and Sundar, p.875). Oh and Sundar provide a framework for evaluation that includes two vital modes of interactivity, Modality and Message Interactivity.
Modality Interactivity is described by Oh and Sundar as including “…sliders, drags, mouse-overs, and zoom features available on Web sites” (Oh and Sundar, p.216). Important to note here, these researchers say, is the “bells and whistles” that modality interactivity provides to users does not ensure cognitive absorption of online messages. There are too many buttons to push and the user becomes so engaged in interacting with the site itself that the message gets lost in the process.
Message Interactivity, on the other hand, is described as the ability to communicate reciprocally within a system. Or, as Oh and Sundar explain, “Hyperlinks and buttons embedded in Web sites show the communication possibilities to users, where they can click to see another layer of content. This, as opposed to reading the whole content by just scrolling down (Oh and Sundar, p.217).
As an example of peripheral interactivity, consider the “memes” that are so often used to introduce audiences to the fear based appeals in messages of the Alt-Right. Memes merely represent the first layer in online messaging. In a Wired.com article, Emma Ellis explains how the Alt-Right keeps a cycle of moving messages flowing from their think tank to the Web to Twitter, making sure they ultimately are rerouting to Web users. This ensures users go from peripheral thinking, about symbols like memes, to deeper message involvement in a cycle that “perpetuates itself” (Ellis, p.4).
For instance, Ellis says, Alt-Right founder Richard Spencer “is very Internet-savvy. He knows that most of his target audience isn’t going to sit down with the intention of reflecting deeply on the “biological reality of race” (Ellis, p.5). Spenser is described as using his Twitter account and his Web blog, AlternativeRight.com, to strategically “deliver alt-right ideology in bite-sized chunks In addition, Ellis says people like Spenser create and push out memes like Pepe the Frog, with a swastika or burning cross or posts hashtags such as #whitegenocide to engage Web users (Ellis, p.5).
It is helpful to compare the application of theories on persuasion to tactics in an attempt to garner what effect exposure to messages of the Alt-Right have on the audience? Web sites that contain alt-right ideology offer many examples of the kind of divisive rhetoric used to exploit the social media mechanics of platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
For instance, a look at key stats in an Atlantic.com article by Jonathon Morgan explains how the Alt-Right began to dominate Trump’s Facebook page with comments (Morgan, p.1). According to Morgan, the president has said that he rejects the support of white-nationalists. However, his denunciation stands against the backdrop of a recent spike in hate crimes across the country… (Morgan, p.2). Morgan’s analysis of 8,215,332 comments from 1,734,738 different Facebook compares language on Trump’s page to that of the online language of white-nationalists. The results exposed anti-Semitic rhetoric and other terminology associated with white-nationalists (Morgan, p.2). One example of the violent rhetoric used online also was described by Morgan as follows (Morgan, p.3):
For an earlier investigation into far-right radicalism on Twitter for The Washington Post, we used machine learning to identify 3,500 possible white-nationalists based on the language in Twitter users’ profile descriptions and pro-Nazi symbols in their avatars. We then dissected the racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and often violent language used by these accounts. (Many have since been suspended by Twitter.)
It is easy to blame alt-right propaganda, at which the Nazis also were very good and innovative during WWII. The same principles apply today in that the audience digests the messages of the Alt-Right online and, subsequently, their minds are often changed. To this point, Morgan, says, “Academics and pundits have long predicted that the combination of Trump’s nativist rhetoric, right-wing propaganda, and the increased prevalence of the Alt-Right in mainstream politics would embolden hate groups and normalize extremist ideology” (Morgan p.9).
The effective use of social media by the Alt-Right during the election and the outcome indicate more than a grain of truth in these predictions. As such, there are clear implication here for users of technology. In particular for those using technologies to solve communication problems. It is vital to be aware of the ways in which technologies both emerge and are deployed within multiple contexts in an effort to remediate text, frame arguments, and persuade users to change their minds. Also important to consider is that the success of the violent Web based appeals by the Alt-Right relies heavily on tapping into users preexisting values.
Theory Inflected Analysis:
If you choose to develop highly interactive Web sites, you are opening yourself to public criticism and critique, which many Alt-Right groups purposely avoid. Too much opposition could ruin the effect of peripheral messaging campaigns. So, engaging fully with Web users is not part of the Alt-Right’s strategy, at least not initially. Elaboration on messages is something that happens slowly, over time.
For example, take the contradictions in the messaging of Breitbart former Director Steve Bannon, who in a News.com article says he is an economic-nationalist not ethno-nationalist like the Europeans. Yet, he is widely quoted as a having espoused anti-immigration and diversity statements (staff writer, news.com.au, 2016). Those viewing memes are likely to make a quick judgement about the validity of Bannon’s message based on their own values. Even more, those who have high involvement with the pretext of the initial message are likely to click on a hyperlink and go deeper into the message prism. This is where message interactivity and cognitive processing or deeper reflection is possible.
Similarly, in the ultimate oxymoron, Ellis tells us how the Alt-Right presents itself as respectable racism clad in the trappings of academia. They want to be seen as capable of making informed arguments. For instance, KKK’s David Duke’s message to members advised members, as a first step, to get “…out of the cow pasture and into the hotel meeting room.” As a second step, the Alt-Right advises its members to clad yourself in the trappings of academia, about which she writes (Ellis, p.2-3):
“People have always tried to give an intellectual foundation to euro-nationalism,” says Brian Levin, director of CSU San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Remember phrenology, the bogus science of studying the size and shape of someone’s skull as a predictor of intelligence and character? And how it was really just a bunch of racists poking at people’s heads? Same idea.
Package your most controversial ideas in pseudo-academic arguments, using ornate, polysyllabic, racial-slur-free language. It makes people more willing to hear it. And if you do so on a bland Web site—as NPI has—so much the better.
In an effort to aid comprehension of how attitudes are shaped online, Sundar et al offer an analysis of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). It essentially explains that attitudes are formed and reinforced by persuasive arguments. People receive information and they essentially “evaluate, remember, and accept (or reject) a message” (Oh and Sundar, p.872). This is elaboration.
The level of effort or involvement a person has with a persuasive message is said to be either high or low. This determines the level of elaboration, which determines which processing route a message takes. ELM asserts a “dual-processing channel” is responsible for the “degree of cognitive effort” message receivers exert (Oh and Sundar, p.872).
The first channel, or “central route” is activated when a receiver is actually focused on the message being delivered. The second channel, or “peripheral route” is used to process “simple cues” like hashtags, memes, photos, or slogans that are associated with the message. This is where quick decisions are made with little reflection on the message (Oh and Sundar, p.872).
Victor Yocco, in his evaluation of the means of persuasion, also uses ELM to explore how attitudes are shaped and elaboration occurs. Yocco uses the following model to explain how the level of elaboration is tied to the level of message processing. Ultimately this determines whether central or peripheral processing of messages will result (Yocco, p.3).
|Central route processing||Peripheral route processing|
|Information processing||Contents of message are closely examined by the receiver||Receiver is influenced by factors other than the contents of the message|
|Attitude||Will change or be reinforced based on message characteristics such as strength of argument and relevancy||Might change or be reinforced based on the effectiveness of factors other than the message|
|Strength of attitude formed/reinforced||More enduring and less subject to counterarguments||Less enduring and subject to change through future persuasive messages|
Table 1: Comparison of central route processing and peripheral route processing.
Similarly, analysis by Moran et al, focuses on Web site persuasion, including the need for effective content analysis techniques to promote messages. The colleagues also use ELM to explore the means of persuasion used in the appeals of web messaging.
In their evaluation of Web sites that use fear based appeals, Moran et al. reveal many instances of misinformation. However, they also conclude that effective Web building strategies were used to forward the claims being asserted on the sites (Moran et al., pg. 151). This has stark implications for anti alt-right bloggers, who may benefit from exploring Web design techniques that will help forge a counter ideology.
For example, the authors say, the Web sites they explored were prone to using pseudo-scientific evidence and anecdotes, such as horror stories told by mothers about adverse effects to their children. The use of anecdotes is said to fill one-third of the pages on the anti-vaccination Web sites Moran and colleagues explored. (Moran et al., p.156).
In their evaluation of numerous Web sites, Moran et al. revealed, along with the value based appeals that reflected the lifestyles of their target audience, parents were open to messages that stressed values like choice, freedom, and individuality. This, while also promoting alternatives to their fear of, childhood vaccination, a message they were not open to receiving. Again, anti-nationalist and counter alt-right messaging may benefit from exploring these tactics and appeals.
To aid the process of countering fear based appeals, Moran et al., say acceptance of Web based messages can best be accomplished using three evaluation frameworks.
Social Judgement theory – The main point here is an audience must have a latitude for accepting the messages they are receiving. In other words, pro or con, messages cannot pose an affront or challenge to their ego or strongly held beliefs. This means messages that conflict with people’s values, like choice and independence, will be rejected because they fall outside of the audience’s latitude of acceptance (Moran et al., p.152). For instance, to avoid message rejection, online appeals may be fed to the audience in small bites.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory offers insights for crafting messages so they fall within the latitude of acceptance. For instance, in attempting to counter the messages of the Alt-Right, those who oppose alt-right beliefs might attempt to lower resistance by appealing to an audience’s preexisting and strongly held beliefs (Moran et al., pg. 153) Getting the audience to initially reject alt-right rhetoric is key.
Inoculation Theory provides an explanation for how messages can refute resistance by shielding the audience from opposing opinions. For example, with inoculation theory an effective campaign would question the validity of an opposing opinion, like the anti-immigration or white-nationalist messages of the Alt-Right, within the context its own counter message (Moran et al., p.153).
The overall implications inherent in this case study are clear. Message acceptance is primarily based on the strongly held beliefs of the audience. Positioning arguments to persuade, therefore, must be tied to the values of those you wish to impact, to lower resistance to these messages. To this end, designing Web based interaction to move audiences between interactive communications platforms transparently appears to be central to deep reflection and message involvement. This includes initially using images like attractive photos, memes, videos, and familiar cultural symbols to encourage peripheral reflection. Then, to fully engage Web users and take them beyond their initial peripheral experience, deeper layers of message interactivity need to exist.
Memes and Twitter messages appear to play a role in crafting persuasive online messages that foster high levels of audience involvement. Still, research colleagues Bolter and Grusin feel there’s a ways to go before the user is able to have a fully integrated experience with technology without awareness of some form of interruption or mediation (Bolter and Grusin, p.30).
Regarding computer mediated messaging, researcher colleagues Bolter and Grusin say many contemporary theorists believe “unmediated presentation” is not easily achieved by painting, photography, film, television, or computers. In other words, while visual imaging is progressing toward becoming transparent, having a fully integrated online experience remains and elusive goal. (Bolter and Grusin, p.30) Therefore, the meme’s and #hashtags of the Alt-Right, while engrossing, offer no guarantee that deeper reflection on actual messages will occur.
However, judging by the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, the Alt-Right has effectively used social media to amplify its message and normalize an extreme ideology. For instance, many, who were already somewhat inspired by the call to white identity politics and nationalism, are now fully engaged in the divisive messaging of the Alt-Right. It seems the primarily online platforms used to advance their fear based appeals have served the Alt-Right movement well in striking an ethno- and economic-nationalist, isolationist, anti-immigrant, and politically incorrect nerve.
An article on Google.com entitled “The Rich Kids of Fascism,” offers a glimmer of hope that perhaps the messaging of the Alt-Right can be effectively countered as a result of the group’s own internal splintering (IGD, p.3). As the article explains…
“…not everyone in white nationalism is on the same page, and moreover many are quick to sell out their former comrades if they feel the heat is too hot. While overall, white-nationalists are attempting to move into a more ‘mainstream’ appearance (getting rid of swastikas, etc.), as was stated before, this is still a subculture that was built on memes with Hitler in them and references to ’14/88.’ One thing is clear, that publically, no one on the Alt-Right, and even in white nationalism, wants to be labeled a Neo-Nazi or white supremacist.
Given this reality, exposing the messages, connections and Web design tactics of these far right groups, as they seek to rebrand themselves as ‘respectable racists’ is key. This, along with laying open the hidden agendas of their fear based Web appeals, is essential to countering alt-right ideology. Ultimately, their ability to form academic like argumentation while wearing a suit and standing in the White House Oval Office doesn’t make the Alt-Right’s refried brand of hatred any more palatable. Not if you’re the one who has to eat it, off a cold, hard floor.
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