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Martin's Rule of Thumb

Rule-of-thumbWhen people forward an email that confirms their previously-held opinion, the chance it’s false or slanted is at least 51%.  

The likelihood of its falsity rises in proportion to the sender’s narrow mindedness multiplied by the email's apparent authority, because the thrill of confirmation reduces the likelihood the sender will check the email's veracity.  

Consider the following email which is making the rounds of inboxes far and wide.

Begin forwarded message:

From: Redacted to save the sender deserved embarrassment 
Date: February 22, 2017 at 2:00:13 PM PST
To:Redacted because we can't always control what enters our inbox


What is meant by the modern term referred to as 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’.. 

The definition is found in 4 telegrams at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.  The following are copies of four telegrams between President Harry Truman and Gen Douglas MacArthur on the day before the actual signing of the WWII Surrender Agreement in September 1945..  The contents of those four telegrams below are exactly as received at the end of the war - not a word has been added or deleted!  

(1) Tokyo, Japan   0800-September 1,1945 

To: President Harry S Truman 

From: General D A MacArthur 

Tomorrow we meet with those yellow-bellied bastards and sign the Surrender Documents, any last minute instructions?  

(2) Washington, D C   1300-September 1, 1945 

To: D A MacArthur 

From: H S Truman  

Congratulations, job well done, but you must tone down your obvious dislike of the Japanese when discussing the terms of the surrender with the press, because some of your remarks are fundamentally not politically correct!   

(3) Tokyo, Japan  1630-September 1, 1945 

To: H S Truman 

From: D A MacArthur and C H Nimitz  

Wilco Sir, but both Chester and I are somewhat confused, exactly what does the term politically correct mean?  


(4) Washington, D C  2120-September 1, 1945 

To: D A MacArthur/C H Nimitz 

From: H S Truman 

Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end!  

Now, with special thanks to the Truman Museum and Harry himself, you and I finally have a full understanding of what 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS' really means…..

It took me one minute on Snopes to establish that the email above is 100% FALSE and has been floating around the Internet since at least 2006.

Which brings me to Martin's corollary: the longer something is being forwarded around the Internet, the less likely it's true.

All in the interests of media literacy.



Information diet

DIET.039Why is public discourse so divisive these days?

I'm increasingly convinced it's due to the information we consume.

As Clay Johnson put it in his book, The Information Diet, "Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance."

Of course, one person's junk food can be another's gourmet feast. And everyone is entitled to a few guilty pleasure, whether its Lay's potato chips or the latest issue of People magazine.  

And I'm less concerned about people who major in the Kardashians than about those whose principal source of news is cable TV or social media.

Sadly, according to the Pew Research Center, those were the two primary sources of political news in the 2016 election.


Cable's position as people's primary news source may be the product of all their wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies.  

But hidden within these results are some troubling statistics. "Republicans are far more likely to count on Fox News (36%) for campaign information than are Democrats (11%)," Pew says. "Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to rely on CNN (26% vs. 12%) and MSNBC (17% vs. 5%)."

This continues a dangerous information diet of only consuming what we like. People increasingly live in echo chambers where all they hear is their pre-existing opinion reflected back to them.

My suggestion? If you're a liberal Democrat, tune into Bill O'Reilly occasionally. If you're a conservative Republican, watch Rachel Madow now and then.

If you're a regular reader of the New York Times, read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. And vice versa. To get really worked up, read the "comments" online.

You'll disagree with 98 percent or more of what they say. 

But if you take the time to try to understand why they believe what they do, you might find a value or a principle that you can share.

That is the beginning of becoming OtherWise. You'll be free of the echo chamber.







Quieting the echo chamber

Echo chamberPsychologists and social scientists have long known that when people of like mind gather to discuss a controversial issue they emerge with even more extreme views.

The phenomenon is known as group polarization.

The fragmentation of media has created "suffocating echo chambers" in which our pre-existing views are reinforced and magnified.

Living in such an echo chamber can also make us deaf to information that contradicts the noise reverberating in our head. 

Fox News and MSNBC may be the most obvious examples of media leaning in one political direction of another. But we all have personal echo chambers courtesy of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even the "comments" sections accompanying some articles in the Times and almost all in the Wall Street Journal.

Although the Times' Nick Kristoff once suggested "the echo chamber effect is disproportionately a problem on the right," he conceded that the left often lives in a similar cocoon. But even that mild concession was too much for many readers who objected to what they called a "false equivalency."

"If you think MSNBC is the left, Mr. Kristof, you've been watching too much Fox News. MSNBC is what used to be called the center," wrote Kidipede of Portland, Oregon.  

Apparently finding the center of an echo chamber is impossible when you're in it.

Not a problem for tpaine of New York City who wrote, "I see no hope of compromise between a Party that beleives it is God - and, in fact, booed the mere mention of the word three times at their North Carolina National Convention - and a Party that knows 'God's Word' and the Laws of Nature and Economics are eternal."

Apparently possessing Revealed Truth frees the mind from further thought.

All this illustrates the difficulty of breaking out of our echo chambers. So I was intrigued by an old Collin Raney post in C-Notes. It offered a blueprint for at least getting a hall pass from the echo chamber.


The echo chamber "seems to generally occur when you’re reading too much of the same content from the same sources/network," Raney observed. "Changing either of those aspects could help you along, finding content through new sources or possibly seeing content from a new network." 

He points out that echo chambers are singular and personal. Content that simply reinforces my beliefs might be expansive for my friends. "To counter the echo chamber," he advises, "we each need to find a personal balance in the content we consume." 

I'm going to follow Raney's advice and start reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In time, I'll work myself up to Karl Rove's column. And then, who knows?



Social Issue of Our Time

Media LiteracyPublic communications is at a dangerous tipping point.

The Internet democratized media, making everyone a publisher, from the proverbial 400-pound loner sitting on his mother’s sofa to ideologues of every religious, political, social, and fabulist stripe.

Original reporting and writing is still done largely by the same pre-Internet news organizations. But those organizations are fewer, smaller, and poorer. Digital media have siphoned off their advertising dollars, but more significantly they’ve cheapened the value of content, turning it into a commodity measured in clicks rather than in substance.

Truth is no longer determined by conformity to proven facts but by how well it meshes with pre-existing feelings.  Fact-checking is attacked as whining and nit-picking and ultimately reinforces the very attitudes on which fake news feeds.

It’s not exactly news that the public is, at best, skeptical of public relations people. But now Gallup tells us Americans’ trust in journalists is at an all-time low.

Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults don’t believe the news they see, hear, or read. And it’s especially frightening when the most powerful man in the world attacks reporters as “the most dishonest people in the world” and calls some of our leading news organizations “enemies of the American people.”

Public relations people may have other ways to reach stakeholders, but if the credibility of the media is undermined, we all lose. Because there will be no check on the people who write the laws under which we operate and on the people who implement those laws.

Fake news may be aimed at political opponents today, but tomorrow it could just as easily target companies, brands, and civil society, poisoning the markets in which we compete.

The public relations industry can’t stand by and hope this situation will change.  Media literacy may be the social issue of our time. Addressing it is in our own interest.

For starters, we shouldn’t create or enable fake news in a misguided attempt to attract attention, as one entertainment company recently did. Nor should we hide behind phony groups and campaigns, as too many of us still do.  That may help limit the supply side of fake news.

But public relations has a role in addressing the demand side also. Understanding human decision-making and behavior is in our wheelhouse.  Few industries are better equipped to share that understanding with consumers in a way that makes them more sensitive to cognitive illusions like confirmation bias, tribalism, and implicit prejudice. 

The advertising industry has a mechanism for responding to social issues. It’s called the Ad Council, and for 75 years it has created ad campaigns to fight everything from forest fires and racial discrimination to drug addiction and obesity. All created by volunteer agencies and run in donated media.

Why doesn’t the public relations industry have an equivalent effort?

Individual PR agencies and client organizations devote hours to pro bono work on behalf of many causes. But we should be organized in a network of PR agencies and clients with a common strategy to address a cause at the heart of what we’re about -- teaching people how to be savvy media consumers.

We can use our skills to teach people how to fact-check emails, Tweets, and Facebook postings. How to respond to racist, homophobic, or hateful email and social media posts. How pictures and statistics can lie.

We can teach them how to fight the spread of hateful propaganda, whether from a neo-Nazi in his parent’s basement or a member of ISIS on a laptop in Syria. And how to disagree without being disagreeable.

But it won’t happen by itself. It will take the combined efforts of clients, agencies, and media. The result could be better informed consumers and a public relations industry demonstrating its true worth to society.

Note: I was honored to make these remarks when I accepted the Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication from the Arthur W. Page Center.