GEORGE: Why agreeing with the Internet is a bad thing

 


OPINION


Does anyone remember Reagan's famous welfare queen?

Her name was Linda Taylor and she defrauded the U.S. welfare system for $8,000. Her story was famously used by Reagan during his 1976 presidential campaign to support his drive to gut the U.S. welfare program. He took some heat for using the story as a political tool, but at the end of the day, it was a tool that did its job.

It also provided a template for converting anecdotes into government policy. The story became the stereotype, applied to thousands of welfare recipients across not only the U.S. but Canada as well. At its core, the strategy behind the story used an emotional appeal to tug at people's outrage that someone might be getting something that they aren't, and getting it at their expense to boot.

An emotional appeal is a tool well used in commercial advertising and with the rise of social media has become a cost-effective way to advance political goals as well. No need to get a presidential candidate to speak in front of the microphones in order to get your message out. Just plop some odious idea on a suitable picture and voila, instant meme, ready for sharing far and wide.

Anyone who uses social media will have seen hundreds of these. The thing with ideas like the "welfare queen" is that sometimes in order to spur the outrage, you need to massage the facts to support the idea, to embellish a little bit. So not just corruption, but "massive, totally out of control corruption". All too often, the facts to support that embellishment simply won't stand up to the barest amount of scrutiny.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the immigrants who get more benefits than a senior citizen or a welfare recipient and a free puppy too. This meme and variations on its theme roll around the Internet pretty much every day. Every now and then the government gets around to debunking these ones, but new ones get created just as quickly.

But it sure does tug at the heartstrings and provokes outrage. These memes allow politicians and political parties to gauge public reaction and to tailor their messaging and policies to suit. On the Internet, no one knows if you're a political strategist or not. If an emotion yanking idea gains traction, even if it is total bunk, it is worthwhile for them to change their messaging and policy to appeal to that emotion.

If it didn't work, they wouldn't do it. I am pretty sure everyone has seen a Fraser Institute advertisement or the rehashing of the data in one of their news releases by a media outlet somewhere in Canada. The story goes that taxes are the number one expense of "the average Canadian family", ringing in at around 42% of their total annual take. The income used to calculate that 42% is taken from the "average Canadian family income" not the income of the "average Canadian family".

The difference is subtle, but it changes a number of things and sets up another tug at our emotions to make its point. Primarily it moves the calculation of tax burden up a couple of notches. The average family income in Canada is about $82,000 (2016), while the income of the average Canadian family is only $70,000 or so. Due to our progressive taxation system, the higher income earners pay a higher percentage of their income. The emotional appeal? We all like to consider ourselves average, or maybe even slightly above.

So the outrage that is sparked by the plight of the family earning $82,000 per year is taken onto ourselves. The problem is that fully 78% of Canadian families make less than that $82,000 per year. No consideration is given to how families at different levels of income spend their money either. People who can afford to purchase RRSPs and plop cash into interest-free savings accounts won't pay sales tax on that portion of their income, while people earning just enough to get by will pay a higher percentage of their total income in taxes as they buy things like gasoline and clothing. Thus out total tax burden for that $82,000 family itself is skewed. This example is particularly insidious.

The deception is subtle, and most will take the facts presented as gospel, as it appeals to our emotions to do so. Where it becomes a problem for me is when the media picks up the ball and runs with it without thinking about it for two seconds. We are emotional beings living in a technocratic and process driven world. Yet we do not make rational decisions all of the time, especially when it comes to economics and politics where it matters.

As citizens in a democracy, we have a duty to make sure we don't allow ourselves, and our policymakers, to be driven by emotional appeals based on shoddy information or purposely deceptive "facts". Watch out for your own outrage. Check your facts carefully when it is triggered. An emotional appeal is a powerful appeal and when these ideas come floating by it is easy to grab the ones that support our preconceptions and ignore the rest. The dangerous ones are the ones that push your emotional buttons the hardest.

They deserve extra scrutiny.

Always check your facts.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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