The conspiracy believer in your home

Sean Donnelly’s mother got sucked into the world of QAnon conspiracy theories, so he made a little video about it, including documenting some bets he made with her about whether or not Biden would still be in office 3 months after the inauguration or if Tom Hanks & Oprah would soon be arrested for pedophilia. Remember when Baby Boomers were all concerned that the internet was going to be harmful for their Gen X and Millennial children and grandchildren? And now all these Boomers are getting brainwashed by Facebook and Fox News?

QAmom via

I see a lot of distressing things in this short video.

The way that the family of this woman are stuck in a position of treating her complete separation from reality as a quirk or something to avoid talking about. She’s something to work around.

The way that even when there are consequences for believing things that are patently false, she holds fast to those beliefs and the identity that comes with them.

The knowledge that there are people like this in so many families across the country. Families struggling with how to live with delusional members who need more than a quick fix to rejoin the world around them.

There’s a kind of mourning that happens when the person is still there, but the person you knew them to be is gone. Maybe forever.

Advertising to the Affirmative Audience

Early on in the semester with my advertising classes, we talk about the relationship between the intended audience and the brand doing the advertising. The idea is that you’re not always trying to change people’s minds, but sometimes you’re trying to excite people who are already fans of the brand.

It’s called advertising to an Affirmative Audience.

It seems on the surface to be a little silly: Why spend money to get the attention of people who already like you and what you sell?

Advertising to the Affirmative Audience helps keep them aware of new products (like, for example, a new iPhone or Playstation). It also encourages them to feel good about their continued use of a product or service (say, if you’re a subscription service like Netflix or Spotify).

It’s a way to get people to reaffirm their enthusiasm, so that they don’t lose interest, and so that they maintain that positive relationship with the brand.

Which is why I want to take a quick moment to talk about foreign election interference.

A possible relationship between disinformation campaigns and advertising strategy

While scanning the comments to a New York Times article on an intelligence briefing about Russia’s desire to interfere with the 2020 election, I saw the following:

Okay, I’ll bite.

Let’s say the point of election interference isn’t about changing people’s minds from one party to another. Let’s take the perspective that the goal is to preach to the choir.

When advertising to an Affirmative Audience that already agrees with you, you strengthen their connection to your message.

The more a message connects with an audience, the more it becomes a part of their personal identity.

You can refute a loosely held belief with some effort, but if a person sees multiple messages reinforcing a misconception it can help to entrench that idea in their mind.

It’s part of how our minds work. The more connections we have in our brains to a central idea, the more likely we are to believe that central idea.

It’s unlikely a dank meme would turn a Democratic voter into a Republican voter, or vice versa.

But if a certain message, targeted at a person who is already predisposed toward the opinions of one party, gets repeated over and over, that becomes easier for them to believe.

If you see a piece of disinformation presented enough times, from what seems like a variety of different sources, it seems more believable. And if it already confirms something you already loosely believed, you’re even more likely to take it as the truth.

The more convinced a person becomes of the truth in a false statement, the less likely contradictory information will have any impact on their opinion—especially if the contradicting, true, information doesn’t agree with their previously held beliefs.

“But this still doesn’t explain how disinformation could affect an election.”

Take somebody who isn’t a regular voter and give them a steady stream of disinformation that supports one candidate while affirming their previously held beliefs, and now you have someone who will show up on election day to cast their ballot.

Take somebody who had an interest in a candidate and regularly present them with disinformation supporting their interest and they’ll be less likely to believe contradictory information that shows that candidate in a negative light.

A disinformation campaign doesn’t need to change minds to be effective. It might be more effective if it works to prevent people from changing their minds.

Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.