‘Trying to keep up the illusion of authority is decreasing trust’

Gemma Milne looks at how hype can blinker our understanding of what’s going on.

In what way does hype ‘obscure the future’?
We all know the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and it’s this idea which I think is key in understanding why hype matters: it influences flow of funding, policy-making, voting, consumer behaviour, all sorts. Advertising agencies spend a great deal of time and money telling clients how important it is to sway people with narratives - their business makes no sense if words have no impact, right? And so when technological terminology prods and nudges and pushes people along paths which are ultimately detrimental - whether it’s done deliberately or not - the end result is a worse-off world. Hype obscures the future by distracting the masses, by nudging progress off course, and by blinkering people from understanding ‘what’s actually going on’. 

How can psychologists talking to the media avoid hype?
Avoiding overly-simplified absolutist narratives is key. It’s crucial to make clear to the public that most societal systems are complex, and boiling answers to questions down to one-liners or a siloed ‘angle’ means almost always missing parts outs. Reinforcing the truth – that there’s rarely a simple answer – and presenting issues with nuance, is how psychologists talking to the media can avoid hype.

Can hype ever be used for good?
Hype is a tool at the end of the day – a tool for spreading messages, cutting through information overload and simplifying the complex. This can be crucial to get key messages across to the masses, who may not have the time, access or inclination to understand every key issue at depth. So yes – hype can be used for good, but only when those who employ it understand how it can push things in problematic directions and thus use it responsibly.

Do you think that hype has played a role in the current pandemic?
I think in some sense hype hasn’t been utilised (responsibly) enough – there is much confusion in the mainstream narratives, particularly in the UK, so there could be an argument for the government and key information agencies to have used it for good to reassure, provide clarity and bring the masses along in a trusted manner. For example, I’d have loved to have seen more ‘hype’ around the reality that ‘we don’t know, this is new and difficult’ as opposed to absolutist ‘answers’ which seem to be discounted after only a few days. Science is not something that updates every couple of hours in line with the news cycle, and public desire for simple answers and demands for clarity should be answered with honesty: ‘it’s difficult to give a straight answer’ as opposed to a fudged overly-simplified and ultimately dissatisfying or dangerous response from government. Trying to keep up the illusion of authority and ‘we know what we’re doing’ is decreasing trust every time that’s proven wrong, and it’s this that I think is the most worrying point. It would be far more sensible to be honest about the difficulty in giving straight answers as opposed to getting them wrong.

What are your top tips for seeing beyond hype?
When you read something, hear something, see something: pause. Remember that every message has context around it, and that it’s key to interpret messages accordingly. If it is prompting an emotional reaction, remember that narratives are designed to do that; ask questions about who is saying it, why they’re saying it, in what way are they saying it; try to interpret the narrative through a few different people’s perspectives – your parents’, someone in another country, you in 50 years’ time. It’s not about not believing anything, but rather to approach information with critical thinking and healthy scepticism, and allow yourself to ask questions to start to see through the hype.

Smoke & Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it by Gemma Milne, published by Robinson (£13.99), is out now

Read the Introduction with kind permission from the publisher here.

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