Is Palin a Kitten-Eater?

I picked up a hard copy of the March 2008 New York Time Magazine at my sister’s place on the west coast at the beginning of August.  At various times it has been on the floor of my rental car, on the beach, in a hotel room in Chicago, in the pile to go out for recycling, in the rack in the bathroom and sitting on the corner of my desk (is that more information than you need to know?).

The serious effects that the addition of Sarah Palin to the equation is having in US politics reminds me … I have been carting this around because I have been meaning to blog about a one page article in it by Farhad Manjoo called Rumor’s Reason

In the article Farhad traces the Obama as “Muslim Manchurian candidate” idea back to a summer 2004 press release by Andy Martin.  With no factual proof, the story was ignored by the “objective” traditional media at first.  But the idea that Obama is Muslim persisted, showing up on the net, breaking through to broadcast media from time to time, to the point where one poll showed 8% believing it.

Farhad goes on to report on the social psychology of why a blatantly false idea can persist.  He highlights “how our brains suss out truth from fiction.  To determine the veracity of a given statement, we often look to society’s collective assessment of it.  But it is difficult to measure social consensus very precisely, and our brains rely, instead, upon a sensation of familiarity with an idea.  You use a rule of thumb: if something seems familiar, you must have heard it before, and if you’ve heard it before, it must be true.”

Understanding these structural factors behind why an idea is accepted and spreads is what we are trying to do at  The cognitive factors covered by Farhad are only part of  the story. 

In Social Capital Value Add, I take a deep dive on external structural factors enabling ideas that are inherent in the social web that has emerged in the last few years.  By mashing up a Stanford study by Jonah Berger and Chip Heath (co-author of last year’s best selling business book, Made to Stick) and a Pew Internet & American Life analysis, Buzz, Blogs & Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004, I tried to illustrated what Dunan Watts might call a global information cascade. (Hey – any crack illustrators want to take a run at Fig. 6 in the eBook? Talent needed!)

These structural factors are often behind overall or turning point dynamics of modern elections.  They matter and they mean that democracy is at work, long before the day comes for you to cast your ballot.  Your contribution to online forums, blogs and the like help charge real world social networks with scales of implicit content not previously achievable. 

“Objective” mainstream media don’t rely on releases from campaigns or blog posts from so-called “influentials”, they use a rule of thumb: if a story “breaks” away from the implicit content milieu it must be a story worth reporting, it has “legs”.

The Pew study tracked the spread of eight ideas during the 2004 election.  Each one of them, in a different context, could have triggered a change of momentum in another election. 

The point is that in the relatively new context where online media has become a fully integrated component of the national discourse, most of those eight ideas were neutralized by competing voices before they spread far enough to change the course of the election.  They remained in the milieu.

The way people use broadband internet takes the milieu out of the cognitive and limited physical word of mouth space and brings it forth as our most intense form of media, incorporating word of mouth, text, audio, photographs and video. 

Ideas “break” when they mutate.  “Obama is a muslum” became an email over the course of two years.  Farhad notes that one version of the email contains a line, “I checked this out on Snopes (a fact checking website), and it’s true”. 

I can tell you one thing.  I would have written this blog post a lot sooner if a friend had sent me Farhad’s piece electronically instead of it being stuck on a bit of dead tree, kicking around in meatspace.  Heck, maybe folks will even stick around long enough to figure out the new spin-doctors’ talents if we que this piece up with something hilarious!


“Obama offered a clear, point-by-point rebuttal to every argument in the chain e-mail, and he provided an important alternative story – “dirty tricks”.  His single voice and one counter story did not kill the story.  To neutralize a negative idea about your brand you need what Seth Godin refers to as a Tribe.  Endless volunteers, amplifying your voice.  Getting your messages out through mutations and offerring the right alternative story to the right audience at the right time.  There are also underlying structural factors that you need to take under management.  Both are involved in memetic brand management.  Traditional central campaign methods are not designed for this.

It was not until 2004 that broadband internet overtook dialup connections, and the correlating behaviour of people and network effects entirely changed the game. 

The spin doctors’ craft has traditionally been more creative than calculation.  In 2003, there was a moment during an Ontario provincial election campaign when the ruling conservative party issued a press release calling the liberal opponent an “evil, reptilian kitten-eater from another planet“.  Many commentators at the time believed that the resulting turn in fortunes against the conservatives was due to voter resentment of negative campaigning.  I speculate that the combination of environmental cues that existed had created for voters uncertainty about the liberal leaders’ leadership qualities.  The kitten-eater moment, filled the void with a tough, vivid image that finally materialized the liberal leader as a force to be reckoned with. 

Over the last six months I have seen demonstrations of real time online social media monitoring systems that dramatically reduce the guesswork involved in exploring what key concepts are churning in the milieu of implicit content. 

Investing in this kind of know how.  Securing corporate reputations in this context.  Making the corporation more accountable to social forces and society more aware of corporate capabilities is the motive here. 

Now let’s test those key words again … “hockey mom”, “ordinary American”, “small town”, “Washington outsider”, “beauty queen” … truth.

2 Responses to “Is Palin a Kitten-Eater?”

  1. @Stephen Says:

    Add “Palin bikini slip” to that list of keywords and your traffic will skyrocket! Heh.
    Very interesting ideas, I do wonder about these types of memes that persist. I suspect that part of it has to do with people *wanting* it to be true. Sort of like how the MSM persists in pushing the idea that despite having 90% registered Democrats in the newsroom these networks are capable of providing balanced news coverage.
    I would submit that this contributes to people believing things that they get from non-MSM sources more readily.

  2. Michael G. Cayley Says:

    thanks for stopping by Stephen :)

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