In a cynical world, just as certain otherwise healthy nutrients could cause cancer, correct formulations develop cynicism because they are easily suspected of hypocrisy. In order to believe again, cynics need different, experiential perspectives.

The traders in the marketplace of ideas fight harder and fiercer than in any other market. The artisans and partisans of coexisting political, social, economic or religious ideologies are constantly clashing to secure a better share of the market. And in retrospect, the world has often been shocked at how easily false, harmful or even inhumane ideologies have managed to gain a foothold throughout history.

Beyond the manipulation and lies used by those who perpetuate harmful ideologies, there is another factor that they do not control, but which has always worked in their favour. This hugely important factor is well illustrated by the analysis of a 2015 case by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an American data scientist.

On 2 December 2015, two young Muslim men opened fire at the headquarters of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and seriously injuring 22 others. On the evening of that day, Davidowitz sat in front of the television and the computer with which he had been analysing Americans’ Google searches for more than two years, and made a shocking discovery[1].

Just minutes after the news reports named one of the attackers, “a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they want to do with Muslims: kill them”. The most Googled phrase containing the word “Muslim” that evening was “kill Muslims”. Whereas before the attack on 2 December about 20% of American Google searches for Muslims contained some hint of hatred, in the hours after the attack that figure rose to 50%.

But of greater significance was Davidowitz’s finding four days later, following Obama’s speech on the San Bernardino shooting. 

In general, the press deemed the speech a success in terms of its powerful and moving rhetoric, and praised the president for his clear and conciliatory tone. Obama had delivered the right message politically, socially, and morally, calling on his fellow citizens to abandon all forms of discrimination and reminding them that freedom is stronger than fear. Despite the press assessments, which presidential aides were later able to use as indicators of the president’s successful communication, Davidowitz found that Americans’ Google searches during and immediately after Obama’s speech revealed a very different reality. The president had succeeded in stirring up even more negative emotions in those who listened to him. Google searches associating Muslims with terms like “terrorist”, “evil”, or “violent” doubled, searches associating Syrian refugees with negative terms increased by 60%, while searches about how to help them decreased by 35%.

So what was wrong with Obama’s speech? History buffs will no doubt be reminded of many similar cases (from Hitler eight decades ago to Trump a few years ago, to name just a few) where the media generally misjudged the quality and impact of certain messages in the public sphere on the masses. So before answering the previous question, it is useful to answer another: What does this recurring misperception tell us about ourselves and our perceptions?

First, that people lie and lie to themselves almost constantly. We often don’t know the truth about what others think, no matter how carefully we study the market sociologically. Secondly, the correct message, the truth, has no magical power to persuade people. The inescapable conclusion from observing its effect on the masses is that, at least in some situations, the truth itself is less important than the way in which it is communicated. This is, in fact, the answer to the question with which this paragraph began: Obama’s speech was correct, it conveyed the truth, but it was essentially moralistic, which, contrary to his intentions, had the effect of reinforcing the negative reactions of his audience towards Muslims.

But the most spectacular part of Davidowitz’s observations is yet to come. There was one phrase in the president’s speech that broke the pattern of negative Google searches by his audience. After Obama said that “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes. And, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defence of our country”, Davidowitz says that for the first time in more than a year, the most searched term after “Muslims” was no longer “terrorists”, “extremists” or “refugees”, but “athletes”, followed at the top of the searches by the word “soldiers”. And “athletes” was still the top search term the day after the speech.

One conclusion to be drawn from Davidowitz’s analysis is that people will not tolerate wooden language or messages, i.e. moralising, intuitive messages, no matter how well rhetorically couched, especially when the subject matter affects them personally, directly or indirectly. In other words, people don’t want to be lectured, reprimanded, and taught to be good. Grief, frustration or anger outweigh the need to be scrutinised by lectures on what’s “right” or “good”. Cold, objective messages have little chance in the face of overwhelming emotions. But where correction doesn’t work, the invitation to discover more, to broaden one’s horizons—an exercise that may start on the same emotional ground but leads to rational conclusions useful for breaking out of the vicious circle of pain, fear or anger—seems to work.

Two months after the first speech, Obama gave another televised speech on Islamophobia, a very different one. Instead of focusing on theoretical truths and urging people to do the right thing, he simply opened up the horizon and helped his listeners see Muslims in a much broader picture, focusing on significant, impressive, balance-shifting details. He reminded Americans that many of the slaves who came to America centuries ago were Muslims, that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Qur’an, that a Muslim drew up the plans for Chicago’s skyscrapers. He spoke again of athletes and soldiers, but also of American Muslim policemen, firemen, teachers, and doctors. And Davidowitz’s minute-by-minute analysis of Google searches found that this speech was more effective than the first—hateful searches dropped in the hours after the president’s televised address.

Even if Davidowitz’s analysis doesn’t answer the important question of the extent to which Google searches can influence attitudes and behaviour in the long term, it does raise another question, the importance of which is obvious: what if many more communicators in the public sphere—from politicians to clerics, including journalists, but also all of us who now have our own voice in the agora through social media—communicated differently? 

What if, by leaving aside moralistic lectures, we lived more authentically and learned to communicate more life stories and images that realistically portrayed different perspectives? Now that history has given us enough reasons to stop believing in the goodness of religious and secular people, we need to find reasons to believe in a person who is born again (to use the biblical metaphor), which means changed, precisely to extinguish the cynicism that is gradually turning us into a dystopian, mercantile, and morally bankrupt society.

Norel Iacob is editor-in-chief of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.

[1]“Which he describes in the book ‘Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’, Bloomsbury, 2017.”

“Which he describes in the book ‘Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’, Bloomsbury, 2017.”