During the pandemic everyone in America spent much more of their lives online. Zoom meetings and Skype interviews replaced physical meetings and travel. Take out and delivery services replaced going out to eat or grocery store trips. Internet advertising and social media conversations substituted for knocking on doors and talking to people at county fairs and rallies about politics. As we navigate a path forward from COVID-19, we want to share the tools and techniques that can make you more effective in persuading other people, without the benefit of interacting and talking face to face. Online communication is a challenge, but applying lessons from psychology and ethics can give you an advantage in this brave new world.
Signal Intelligence: Sharing information with strangers that they can trust.
If you’ve been around the Internet for more than a minute, someone has accused you of “virtue signaling.” The person accusing you probably couldn’t explain what “virtue signaling” means to them, other than talking about doing something that they would rather you not talk about. It’s a vague insult that hollows out a real word’s meaning and replaces it with “something I don’t like,” in the way that “fascist” and “communist” are used to end discussion and show disgust for other people.
In this article, you will learn what signaling is, how it works, and tools and techniques you can use to make sure that your actions speak clearly and loudly for your values in ways that are sure to elevate and help your allies and confound your opponents.
Signaling is about communicating with strangers. You want me to receive a message, but I don’t know whether you are sending a false message in order to trick me. What can you do to make sure a stranger trusts your message as real?
Put some skin in the game. A true signal should cost something to send that ensures others that either it is true or you are willing to incur a real cost in order to send a false signal.
Virtue and Vice: Two sides of the same coin.
“Virtue signaling” and its lesser heard counterpart, “vice signaling,” are two sides of the same coin. In common usage, they indicate a statement or act that identifies you as a person who holds the right virtues (or vices) through statements, code words, and other behavior intended to communicate what sort of person you are.
Empty signals are low cost and create no real skin in the game. Mom, America, and apple pie are all easy to say that one loves, and most politicians are happy to say the words and have a slice of pie, even if they may not reflect their true values. After all, how would you know whether the signal is false? It costs them nothing and gets them approval from the group. On the other side of the coin, it is easy to express negative attitudes on social media toward a hated group to show that you are part of the tribe and not sympathetic to the hated group.
True signals can look similar, but what distinguishes them is that there is a cost. A politician who never holds campaign events on Sunday mornings, so he can spend time with his mother at her home is taking action and missing out on something else to live out his values of loving his Mom. A bigot willing to risk job loss and personal consequences for publicly demonstrating against the hated group is putting real skin in the game that shows sincere belief, not just a willingness to share spicy memes from the anonymity of the Internet. Watching what people do when there is a cost to do it is the best way to sort out “virtue signaling” from living virtuously.
Stories are Stronger than Statements
If there is one piece of writing or communication advice that can make you more persuasive and effective, it’s to “show, don’t tell.” Describe what happened, making the facts and circumstances clear, but avoid telling the reader what conclusions or feelings they should take away from the situation. We know what we are trying to make them think or feel, but people generally resist being told what to think or feel.
Telling a story about your personal experience is much more powerful and makes your actions speak for you. When I made the choice to get the COVID-19 vaccine, instead of telling others that they should make the same choice, I told a story about what research I did, what concerns I had, and what my experience was. It was important not to tell others that they had to come to those same conclusions or have the same experience for them to be able to hear the story without feeling like they had to defend themselves.
Leading by example and action also shows that you have skin in the game. It’s not an abstract editorial about what other people should do, it’s an account of what you did with your own time and energy, showing your commitment to the choices and values that are important to you. Other people may come to different conclusions, but they can’t honestly attack your story as empty “virtue signaling” or telling them what to do.
Sometimes we don’t have our own stories or experiences, but if we listen to the stories of others who do have skin in the game, we can share and amplify them. A person in my community told me about the time that someone was in her back alley and exposed himself to her daughter who was playing in the yard. She called the police department and didn’t receive a response for nearly an hour, by which time the person who exposed himself was long gone. There were official police department statistics that showed long response times for calls for service, but the story of a mother who couldn’t get help when she needed it was much more impactful than dry statistics.
Use more stories to change more minds.
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Send Fewer Signals: When everything is important, nothing is important.
You always own the option of having no opinion.Marcus Aurelius
There is a common instinct among first time candidates for public office to try to fit as many positions as possible on their website and campaign literature. Every policy position or proposal they have ever thought about even briefly is presented all together in a very long list or paragraph after paragraph explaining details. The instinct is to avoid a potential voter having any unanswered questions about where the candidate stands, usually out of a sense of personal frustration at having experienced politicians who didn’t have clear positions on all of their issues and not knowing where they stood.
Providing all the answers about where you stand on every issue prevents an opportunity for a conversation or dialogue. If every position you have is already presented in full detail, the potential voter makes their choice without ever engaging or interacting with you. Providing clear, positive, succinct positions on your core three to five issues shows potential voters what’s important to you and is a good filter for them to decide if you are a candidate who shares their priorities and values. Not providing a position on every issue shows the voter that you are capable of prioritizing what is most important and not getting distracted by things that are less important.
Some people like sports, other people hate sports, but the majority of people are indifferent to sports. Being politely indifferent is a kind of superpower which allows you to listen to someone else’s strong opinion, showing them appreciation for sharing their interests with you, while still declining to hold a strong opinion on the subject. It’s also a valuable filter for whom to spend your time on in the future; someone who can’t hold a conversation unless you feel as passionately about everything they are passionate about is unlikely to be helpful or interested in the things that are important to you. Indifference is the escape hatch you need to move on to people who are less self-centered.
Feed the good, starve the bad.
When you see someone say something cringe worthy or foolish on social media, there is an immediate temptation to call it out. Sharing things on Facebook or Twitter so you and your friends can ridicule bad takes and terrible behavior feeds a sense of belonging. Bringing people together through solidarity against others has been a hallmark of reactionary and populist movements throughout history. Like adding olive oil and salt when cooking, it’s an easy technique that gets results, but it’s a shortcut that can turn into a crutch when used too often.
Make a conscious effort to praise those people who are doing good work in the world, who are communicating positively, who are being helpful to others instead of dunking on fools. Don’t provide reactions or attention to poor behavior; those who are behaving poorly are doing it in order to receive attention, even if it’s negative. Giving them what they want will encourage them to continue to use that behavior; withholding attention will cause them to change their methods (or at least their target). When you develop a reputation for not spending time or attention on negative behavior, fewer people will try that method on you.
Facts Last Longer than Feelings
Social media is designed for maximum engagement with its users. Users engage with emotional content more and for longer periods of time than they engage with informational content. Posts and comments that make a user feel strong emotions like anger or outrage have the most emotional valence and the most potential to spread through social media and receive engagement in the form of comments and shares. Posts and comments that people agree with without feeling strong emotions receive less engagement and fewer comments or shares; people are not moved to type a comment to express agreement.
When you find yourself reading a post about how people should be shocked or outraged at something someone has done in the world, or stoking fear about unknown dangers of shadowy groups or conspiracies, providing information from reliable sources that explains the issue in more detail, provides facts about what exactly is or isn’t being done and who specifically is or isn’t doing it is an effective way to help others avoid spinning themselves up with emotion.
Specific factual information, when provided in a way that doesn’t argue against the feelings the original poster or commenter is experiencing will provide a path for readers to climb down from the initial visceral response and put the issues into proper context as they relate to the rest of their life. Providing the information without judgment or argument against emotions will make it easier for people to better understand the situation when they are emotionally ready to grapple with the facts.
It’s critical to not expect people to read the article or information right away and change their mind. Very rare indeed is the person who was argued out of their sincerely felt beliefs; most people need to feel heard and safe before they are ready to examine their beliefs in the context of new or different information. Shaming, ridicule, attacking their intelligence, and all the other common moves on display on social media may provide a brief feeling of superiority, but do nothing to change hearts and minds.
Apply Effort Where it Will Make an Impact
Complaining about an overbearing and ineffective government to libertarians provides the satisfaction of agreement and belonging, but unless they are also elected or appointed officials, it is unlikely to produce any change. Having an uncomfortable but respectful conversation with the elected or appointed officials responsible for an overbearing and ineffective government program is less satisfying, but it has a much greater chance of improving the situation. People generally want to do a good job in the work that they do and will listen to suggestions for improvement when they are delivered with politeness and persistence.
When you see someone complaining on social media about a problem, a good question to ask is, “Who can change this situation for the better?” If there isn’t something you have the power to do to change it for the better, ask “What can I do to encourage the person with the power to change the situation for the better to do so?” If a problem is important enough to spend time drawing attention to, it is also important enough to provide a suggestion for how people can take human action to make a change. People often come up after speeches to tell the speaker they were inspired, but the speaker hasn’t done a complete job unless the listener was inspired to action that can make a change. Work on persuading the person who has the most power to change the situation, not in complaining to the maximum number of people who don’t have any power to change it.
86,400 seconds. 1,440 minutes. 24 hours.
Every person has the same amount of time available to them every day. Our interconnected world provides opportunities to reach many more people than at any previous point in human history with less expenditure of time. If you apply the techniques in this article to your interactions with other people on social media and in public forums, you will maximize the impact of your time and energy, persuade more people, and live a happier life.
Take effective action to make the world better. Don’t waste your precious time on things that aren’t important. Share your stories with others. Show them the way.
Nicholas Sarwark is Executive Director of the Libertarian Policy Institute. He served as Chair of the Libertarian National Committee from 2014 to 2020, a period of unprecedented growth. Over the last two decades, he has worked as a systems developer for a major non-profit, tried over 30 cases to a jury as a deputy public defender in Colorado, and managed the oldest independent car dealership and loan company in Phoenix. He founded Wedge Squared Strategies in 2019, a strategy, communications, and campaign consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations maximize their impact on the world. Licensed to practice law in Colorado and New Hampshire, he lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife Valerie and their four children where they volunteer to build a better local community.