Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Political gossip vs public policy information

Just coming out of a campaign as a candidate, I saw first-hand and was amazed to the extent that gossip can hijack messages even among people who should know better.

Political dynamics is not usually phrased that way using the term "gossip" but that's really the only word for it. Just ask Denise Pike about the effects of political gossip on her campaign.

But by gossip, in this context, I mean more than just personal information about a campaign or candidate. By gossip I mean any kind of untrue information that is passed around and believed even in the face of verifiable alternate facts or plain common sense.

For example, what rational voter would accept the idea that the leader of a major provincial political party would seriously consider driving the province into bankruptcy? I mean advocate literally driving up out debt to levels so high as to be unsustainable given our revenues and so forcing default or bailout or both?

The fact that a politician can use that "fact" as a weapon to discredit an opponent in the face of recordings which clearly show that the original remark had nothing like that intent shows that something peculiar is at play.

You might dismiss this as foolishness and inconsequential but this line of thought was triggered by this article in the New York Times outlining the results of a paper on gossip published by a group of evolutionary biologists in Germany and Austria.

The article noted that the study found that gossip, whether positive or negative, had a big influence on the decisions and outlook of the subjects, and it didn’t even matter if the source of the gossip had a good reputation himself.

You might think the gossip mattered just in borderline cases but that's not the case at all. Using a series of games, they found that even when a player saw that his partner had a record of consistent meanness, he could be swayed by positive gossip to reward the partner anyway.

Or withhold help from a perfectly nice partner just on the basis of malicious buzz.

In other words, what people were told about other people often trumped their direct experience of that person.

Imagine the implications for political campaigns.

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