You did that on purpose!

I'm on the train to Gatwick Airport for an interesting conference over the next three days. The topic's going to be interesting – covering social media, behaviour change and, one of my current interests, how you work with a group who have a fixed narrative – a conspiracy theory of one sort or another – that misrepresents what is happening.

I've got a couple of initial propositions on that that I hope to be exploring:

My feeling is that conspiracy theorists tend to see results they do not like and assume that what they see was the result of deliberate, predictable action. To my mind, there are three places that this thinking is often flawed as over-rational:

  • Complex vs complicated
    Predictable results are not achievable in complex situations, but the predominance of theories and discussion in most disciplines is that the world is complicated – and hence predictable. In a complex environment, patterns might be visible, along with the convergence of things that will bring some result – but what that result will precisely be is impossible to see. (Good current examples might be events in Tunisia and Egypt – certain signals indicated that a turning point was being approached, but the precise moment and the precise outcome is more difficult.)
  • Intentional action vs unintended consequences
    Even when particular outcomes are predictable, there are usual consequences that are unforeseen – the complex elements of a genuinely complicated situation. Often, new technologies end up being used in ways that were not foreseen – precisely because of elements that designers did not see coming. Smart designers build products that have loose constraints, not tight ones, precisely so that users and the market can find the best applications. When policies or strategies are implemented, there are always elements that need addressing later – but they were rarely intended as detrimental offshoots in the first place.
  • Target audience vs priority audience.
    There may be a particular audience that is prioritised for a variety of reasons. It's easy to then assume that other audiences are therefore being deliberately de-prioritised – or being targeted.

Examples like today's report in the Financial Times about the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in the USA is a good example of the underlying sense that things are rational and deliberate – and at the very least there will be a smoking gun – a single decision or moment to which everything can be traced back.
The difficulty is that, once a conspiracy theory or master-narrative is in place, it can be very difficult to shift – and rarely by counter-argument. I've blogged before about one of the best-known and most insidious examples – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For a detailed story of where they came from – and a history of how they've been used since, I strongly recommend Will Eisner's great The Plot: The Secret Story of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'
It's going to be a fascinating few days.

1 thought on “You did that on purpose!”

  1. A minor example which conforms to your theory.
    As part of a recent intranet homepage redesign project we removed some links to external news sites which we felt were no longer necessary due to people’s increased familiarity with the web.
    An explanation from the grapevine which surfaced in one feedback session was that this was done: “…because if we have to type the address in, you can track it and see what websites we look at.”
    Still working on an anti-story for that one..!

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