Monday, February 23, 2015

How Misinformation Becomes Worldview

I was stunned recently to hear two friends say (independently) that they believe groups like ISIS are representative of the views of Muslims in general.  But then, soon after, came the results of a Lifeway Research poll showing that 27% of Americans hold that view.

This includes nearly a third of men and half of evangelical pastors.  Fortunately, 43% of Americans including more than half of those between the ages of 18 and 34, grasp that “true Islam creates a peaceful society.”

It is a view held by only 23% of evangelical pastors, a fact made apparent when Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, bullied Duke officials into calling off a plan for Muslin students use the otherwise ecumenical Duke Chapel for a call to prayer.

Is it just me or do some apples fall far,far from the tree?

The supposed rationale was because extremist Muslims persecute Christians, therefore we should retract our values, forgetting that extremist Puritans killed early Quakers here when the paint wasn’t even dry yet on the first settlements by Europeans.

It brought to mind the phrase, “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy!” (coined by country songwriter Troy Jones while thinking of three things most people wouldn’t argue with.)

On our quick trip back to the Pacific Northwest a week ago I was equally puzzled to hear one of my two sisters, while expressing joy that one of her preschool grandchildren already knows the pledge of allegiance, followed it with the qualifier, “especially now that it is prohibited in schools.”

I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting, “Where did you ever get that idea?” But I already knew the answer.

I don’t believe that either of those viewpoints is remotely factual, but I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  During the last half of my now concluded four-decade career in community destination marketing, I became a student of how misinformation diffuses through populations.

Because negative or misinformation is so much more powerful that positive or factual information, this may be the most overlooked understanding in that profession.

My introduction, though, was in my early 20s while writing up some research I had conducted for an upper level folklore class at BYU, which documented how misinformation spreads through a society and begins to even contaminate news stories and public policy.

The research dealt with the propensity of people to take bits of information and project them to extreme conclusions.  To adapt words by Bill Moyer, this “harmonizes or re-harmonizes our lives from time to time” with our stories.

Often, as in the case of my research on some events that occurred in 1970, this can lead people to “inversed projection,” where people subconsciously rationalize a contradiction to their life view by painting themselves as the victim.

Thus, a few states giving schools and students the option for daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance becomes “prohibiting the pledge of allegiance.”

It is also how protecting a person’s religious freedom to skip repeating the words “under God” becomes rearticulated as taking religion out of schools, even though those words were not even added to the pledge until 1954, more than 60 years after it was written.

Forcing a minority (8%) to repeat those words is rationalized as somehow protecting religion, even though revered U.S. Presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln preferred “Creator” to the word God.

From a community marketing standpoint, a clear understanding of information diffusion includes knowing where and when to interrupt feedback loops of misinformation, much as “deep brain stimulation implants” are used to interrupt tremors that cause feedback loops in people.

On our trip last week, I noticed how RDU International Airport is still enabling misinformation about the region of North Carolina where we live.

Even though the airport is located in Morrisville, midway between the destination co-owners of Durham and Raleigh, two distinct cities and metro areas that co-anchor a polycentric region, airport tenants are still being allowed to misinform the vast majority of travelers through the airport by suggesting the airport is in Raleigh.

Hertz shuttle buses are emblazoned Raleigh, the Starbucks shop offers only “Raleigh” mugs across from the newsstand that offers only Raleigh t-shirts.  Airline personnel on arrival and departure invariably use Raleigh repeatedly in announcements.

This will only be corrected when a critical mass of Raleigh officials, community leaders and airport authority members, as well as airport staff, speak up against the inequity and misinformation.

It is a true test of regionalism as a family of distinct communities that each has the other’s back.  Otherwise, regionalism is nothing more than a euphemism hegemony.

Until then, the airport is a huge enabler for diffusion of misinformation about this area, undermining visitor promotion, inconveniencing visitors, contributing to unnecessary commutes, misleading news editors, mischaracterizing geography and fostering favoritism.

The hyphenated name alone is cause enough for confusion as it was for a Jeopardy game show contestant last Thursday:

Question: This hyphenated city in North Carolina is home to Wake Forest University.
Answer: What is Raleigh-Durham?
WRONG! (Winston-Salem, the correct answer is the name of a hyphenated city.)

Raleigh-Durham is simply the name of a co-owned airport.  But it illustrates how misinformation can leap into mainstream use if not addressed.

Long ago, community marketing organizations and chambers of commerce through this vast polycentric area agreed on how airport tenants should brand RDU and the communities it serves but when presented to airport management it was vetoed along with a snide notation toward me that I wasn’t supposed to see.

As co-owners, Durham elected bodies and municipal management could easily demand that this be corrected, but they haven’t despite being nudged repeatedly by residents as influential as the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, nor have the Durham appointees to the airport authority.

Even under new management, misrepresentation of the airport and the region persists.  Fortunately, a small fraction of visitors to any community travel by air and this holds true for the dozens of communities served by RDU.

Even the majority of business travelers arrive via highway or rail.  But RDU’s complacency regarding tenant mischaracterization does impact an average of 26,000 people each day, half of whom are baffled and half of whom are either angry or oblivious.

Is it possible that Raleigh advocates are doing more than endorsing the misinformation by their silence?

Is it possible they otherwise consciously or unconsciously endorse the misinformation as a way to harmonize with their centric world view?  Unconsciously, are they rationalizing it by inversely projecting themselves somehow as being the victim?

Is the answer one that would enlighten us all as to why so many of us tolerate bigotry of other kinds, either by avoidance as Durham officials are doing with misrepresentation at the airport or passive-aggressiveness as Raleigh officials appear to do?

It makes me wonder, is mass deep brain stimulation the only option?

No comments: