WOKE! The original definition identified a woke person as “conscious to racial discrimination.” Today it has a more expansive meaning as someone being “with it.” At considerable risk, let me suggest a third meaning as in awakened — aware of what is going on—comprehending, the opposite of gullibility.
We have all been drawn into campaigns or voting by overarching themes. Marketers work on our hopes and fears in branding political candidates. I recall Lyndon B. Johnson’s artful use of an atomic blast to characterize the risk of electing Barry Goldwater. The TV ad was viewed as so incendiary historians say it aired only once. It was, however, considered a news event so most viewers saw it, with commentary, multiple times.
And then there was Ronald Reagan with his “Morning in America” narrative. Atmospherics have long been used to create overarching themes. John F. Kennedy spoke of a New Frontier and more recently Donald J. Trump called on followers to “Make America Great Again.” These themes, it is widely agreed, were quite influential.
Fair enough — political marketers are not new and do their best to elevate their client while disparaging the opponent. But, there is a new game in town and that is where “woke” comes in.
Domestically and internationally there are operatives and government agents who specialize in targeted fiction made to look like fact. They exploit both digital tools and a vast network of user profiles that reveal our political predispositions and emotional appetites.
Digital manipulators are not going away. They are a new version of PT Barnum and they are not selling circuses. Donald Trump uses them. His ultimate opponent will likely do so. The Russians, Iranians and others who sow confusion specialize in this machine gun media. They have intimate profiles of us and know our “hot buttons.”
I know of nothing in human history that suggests the ambitious will not use whatever power tool is available. Once these master manipulators identify our weaknesses they target us with a continuing stream of reinforcing messages. Reinforcing messages are shaped around our biases, not the truth.
There are, of course, calls for government regulation and for Google, Facebook and others to police ads. In the final analysis the constitution and courts say free speech is free speech. If you want to research the futility of government regulation of speech, go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website where you can review its history of defending the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis right to free speech in America. And, of course, Russia or China or North Korea aren’t constrained by warm feelings toward our country.
There is only one option; we must awaken from our tendency to believe people whose messages seem to be in our shared interests. And, we should be especially careful with our own reputation—the shill wants to hijack it.
I can recall a moment some years ago when my Mom received a direct mail piece from a candidate she favored asking her for yet another donation. She said “Son, do you think he will be mad at me for not sending another check?”
Over time most of us have become immune from efforts by phone and mail marketers to trick us into buying their spiel. But, today’s media and digital tools go way beyond the potential of letters and phone calls. We are confronted with fake news sites, photoshopped images, illusory organizations of like-minded people and on and on. We are asked to share these bogus messages by liking (Facebook) or linking or forwarding. When we comply we are using our reputations and good will in a cynical game.
If these tactics become the prevailing tactics, cynicism will thicken and our democracy will become a hollow shell propped up by constitutional scaffolding.
Only awakened Americans can truly sustain America’s greatness. And we need to understand that finding truth and discerning consequences are more than a click away.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.