Exploring the effectiveness of social media – Part 2

This is another addition in the ‘Exploring the effectiveness of social media’ series, which I last discussed in the blog post of the same name – Exploring the effectiveness of social media (September 5, 2018). This is current research I am doing with Dr Louisa Connors and we will discuss it at the The Second International Conference of Modern Monetary Theory (New York, September 28-30), that is, later this week. There is no doubt that social media (among other things) has played a major role in building a non-academic audience for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). As I noted in the previous blog post on this topic, it is not clear that MMT advocates fully utilise social media in a way that advances advocacy even though it is clear that advocacy is the intent of the social media activity. The earlier blog post examined some of the reasons why Twitter use for example might be counterproductive. This blog post extends the discussion about the strategic use of social media.

Background blog posts to date:

Here is a list of relevant blog posts that can be considered background to this current series:

1. Framing Modern Monetary Theory (December 5, 2013).

2. The role of literary fiction in perpetuating neo-liberal economic myths – Part 1 (September 11, 2017).

3. The role of literary fiction in perpetuating neo-liberal economic myths – Part 2 (September 12, 2017).

4. The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism (June 19, 2018).

5. Exploring the effectiveness of social media (September 5, 2018).

Our first refereed journal article together in this project (many more to come) came out last year in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics – Framing Modern Monetary Theory (June 14, 2017).

That literature makes it clear that the way we frame our arguments and the language and vocabularies that we deploy is highly significant in whether our views are accepted or not in the public discourse.

The medium is the message

In 1964, Canadian Communications academic Marshall McLuhan published his third book – Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (MIT Press) which introduced the aphorism – “the medium is the message” – which reflected on his interest on the way technological advances in the media changed the way individuals socially organise and learn about the world.

He actually thought that the print media, which spawned an ‘individualistic culture’ would give way to an electronic media age (some consider he foresaw the Internet).

That electronic age would, in his view, create a new collective social awareness (“the global village”).

The aphoristic “the medium is the message” summarised his belief that it was important to understand the “media” itself rather than just the message it was carrying.

Society is affected by the nature of the medium, quite apart from the messages it delivers.

His famous light bulb analogy demonstrated that a ‘medium’ without a message could have radical impacts on social organisation and interactions.

He wrote:

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.

At the time McLuhan published his third book, J.M. Culkin, who was the director of the Center for Communications at Fordham University, wrote an excellent Op Ed – A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan – which was published in The Saturday Review (March 18, 1967).

J.M. Culkin was reflecting on the “unnoticed fact of our present is the electronic environment created by the new communications media”, which Marshall McLuhan was embracing.

He wrote that the meaning of McLuhan’s ideas on the medium is the message is that “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us”.

This is an incredibly important observation.

So while people create tools to undertake tasks, the tools also shape the way we think, organise and interact.

J.M. Culkin wrote:

It is as pervasive as the air we breathe (and some would add that it is just as polluted), yet its full import eludes the judgments of commonsense or content-oriented perception. The en­vironments set up by different media are not just containers for people; they are processes which shape people. Such influence is deterministic only if ignored. There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening …

It is a question of understanding these new kids and these new media and of getting the schools to deal with the new elec­tronic environment. It’s not easy. And the defenders of the old may prove to be the ones least able to defend and preserve the values of the old.

There is considerable research available now to show that people do behave differently in their communication depending on the medium used.

For example, we behave very differently when communicating face-to-face with a person (particularly, strangers) compared to social media environments where we think there is a sense of anonymity.

I have witnessed this myself.

I regularly get unsolicited E-mails from complete strangers who wish ill of me for being variously a Commie bastard, a traitor to my country (because I criticise the Government), a Left-wing stooge, and, curiously, a sell-out to capital (for advocating full employment) and everything else in between.

The tone is hostile, aggressive and reflects a lack of courage.

These people would never have the temerity to say this things to my face, either personally or from the audience at a formal event.

Moreover, I regularly get copied into Tweets from people who say all manner of vicious things. The only reason they copy me into the Tweets is because they think I care about their opinion and the lack of face-to-face contact allows their ‘bravado’ to exceed any sense of decency.

In one recurring case, I have actually met the person at an event and Rational choice theory is used by economists as a stylised way of explaining how people make social and economic decisions.

In macroeconomics or any other study of aggregates (such as crime), we are told that the aggregate behaviour we observe is really the outcome of all the decisions taken by relevant individuals, operating independently and maximising their own satisfaction.

These individuals are ‘rational’ at all times, which means, contrary to general usage of that term, that they never behave in a random manner, are not susceptible to ‘conditioning’ or ‘patterned behaviour’ by their peers.

Advertising in this regime is purely a source of information to improve decision making.

The focus then moves to examining how such an individual would make their choices. We are told that individuals have a defined set of what are referred to as ‘complete and transitive preferences’, which means that the person knows A is better than B and that if B is better than C, then A must be better than C as well.

These preferences are cast over a ‘choice set’ (a number of options), which are specified in terms of exact information about the options, including the costs and benefits of that each option will entail and the probabilities that each will occur.

The individuals face a financial and/or resource constraints, which means they ‘solve’ what is called a ‘constrained optimisation’ problem.

Of course, rational choice theory is heavily criticised, in part, because it fails to capture many aspects of human interaction and decision-making within that interaction.

People operate in packs and cannot be seen as forming ‘independent’ preferences.

A logical outcome of rational choice theory is that when confronted with the same situation we will always make the same choice.

The evidence shows we do not.

In 1981, cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman published a path-breaking paper – The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice in Science (Vol 211, January 1981).

This paper further articulated what they called – Prospect Theory – which they first introduced in their 1979 paper – Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk (published in Econometrica, Vol 47(2).

Both papers demonstrated situations which violated rational choice theory (or expected utility theory).

In their 1981 paper, they noted that “It is often possible to frame a given decision problem in more than one way.”

They confronted an experimental group with two “problems” which it was “easy to see that the two problems are effectively identical”.

Problem 1: A disease will kill 600 people.

Two choices “to combat the disease have been proposed”:

Program A would save 200 people.

Program B would have 1/3 chance that 600 will be saved, 2/3 change that no people would be saved.

The respondents were asked to choose between the Programs.

72 per cent chose Program A – “the prospect of certainly saving 200 lives is more attractive than a risky prospect of equal expected value”.

This is a risk averse result.

Problem 2:

Program C – 400 people will die.

Program D – 1/3 probability that no-one will die, 2/3 that 600 will die.

78 per cent favoured Program D – “the certain death of 400 people is less acceptable than the two-in-three chance that 600 will die.”

This is a risk taking choice.

Yet the two problems are identical – the only difference is that they were framed differently.

In Problem 1, the frame was in terms of “number of lives saved”.

In Problem 2, the frame was in terms of “number of lives lost”.

They replicated this switching of preferences from being risk averse to risk taking in many other experiments and this led them to articulate ‘Prospect Theory’.

I do not intend to go into the formalities of the theory. But a significant departure from rational choice theory comes when they recognise that in real life, we start a decision making process within a ‘frame’, which may include information about “acts, contingencies, and outcomes”

And the subsequent calculations, estimates, guesses we make are conditioned by the frame (as in the two-problem example above).

For example, “framing outcomes in terms of overall wealth or welfare rather than in terms of specific grains and losses may attenuate one’s emotional response to an occasional loss.”


… the experience of a change for the worse may vary if the change is framed as an uncompensated loss or as a cost incurred to achieve some benefit.

This rejection of rational choice theory and the importance of framing in conditioning the choices we make has massive implications for activists seeking to persuade a populace to adopt a non-mainstream set of ideas.


A ‘frame’ is some idea that you want to present.

George Lakoff defined what he called a ‘Communication frame’ in this way (Source):

The elements of the Communication frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames. The choice of language is, of course, vital, but it is vital because language evokes frames – moral and conceptual frames.

There are many elements then to be considered.

What MMT activists are now engaged in is what Lakoff calls “Long-term Reframing”.

It is reframing because the mainstream economics frames have been deliberately created and nurtured for decades now and so embedded in our subconscious by the well-funded and strategic media use of the conservatives that the overwhelming view about matters economic, even among progressives, is conservative with a strong accompanying morality.

Lakoff writes that the conservatives have “heavily invested in language – in two ways”:

– Language that fits their worldview, and hence evokes it whenever used …

– Deceptive language, that evokes frames they don’t really believe but that public approves of. Saying ‘Tax relief creates jobs’ is an example …

The reframing exercise has to focus on substituting the conservative metaphors that have been carefully crafted by the Right to ensure the public thinks that fiscal deficits are dangerous, that regulations are stifling and punitive, that government ownership is an impingement on freedom, that taxation is onerous and theft – and all the rest of the signals that are used to get the public to agree to legislative shifts that advance the elite interests, even if they are at the expense of the public’s general well-being.

When the latter situation is encountered, we are conditioned to believe that the economy is sick and pain is required to cure it.

The medical metaphors are often used to ensure our personal experiences are manipulated to accord with the economic shifts the elites desire for their own benefits, even if the idea of a ‘sick’ economy is ridiculous.

As Lakoff says we have for decades been subjected to:

… the frame in which the wealthy create jobs, and giving them more wealth creates more jobs.

It is hard to reverse those frames quickly and even harder using a 280 character medium.

We have established in previous blog posts (see above) that:

1. A strategy must begin with a narrative rather than facts.

2. The “for the many not the few” is a narrative – it is a general statement.

3. ‘A currency-issuing government can never run out of money’ is a fact – that may feed into and reinforce a narrative but as standalone statement can easily trigger – because it is a ‘negation’ of a dominant frame – that opposite mainstream frame that the government can run out of money.

Lakoff says that:

Progressives have to start reframing now and keep at it. This reframing must express fundamental progressive values : empathy, responsibility, fairness, community, cooperation, doing our fair share.

These values are before facts.

It makes no sense to just quote facts using Twitter if we want to reframe the debate.

Lakoff: “The truth alone will not set you free. It has to be framed correctly.”

So, in effect, we are engaged in what we might call a ‘framing contest’ with the conservatives. And that means we need to get some serious training to get fit enough to be competitive.

Using Twitter in the reframing exercise

The question is whether the Twitter medium can be successfully used in the reframing exercise.

How can we use Twitter to avoid reinforcing the existing frames that we wish to contest and supplant?

The 1999 Routledge book by media and communications academic Susan D. Moeller – Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death – is worth reading in this context.

Her study of four global crises produced a scathing criticism of the US media.

She says that, over time, we become inured to the shocking news about crises, mostly because of the way the message is framed within the media.

Selective use of sources and case studies means we don’t hear about a lot of world tragedies whereas other stories, particularly those with an American-spin are sensationalised.

Ultimately, we get compassion fatigue if we are confronted with too many stories of badness happening.

So for example, suppose we want to talk about unemployment.

A Tweet that quotes some statistics and talks about individual hardship is unlikely to resonate – it not only invokes the conservative frames that relate causality at the individual level but it also runs into the ‘compassion fatigue’ dead-end.

The alternative way of approaching the problem is to offer some solution: ‘Economy needs more jobs to bolster incomes and sales. Government stimulus created x million jobs during the GFC. see this article (link).

This idea is advanced in this Nonprofit Quarterly article (August 29, 2014) – Reframing Issues in the Digital Age: Using Social Media Strategically – by Julie Sweetland and Rob Shore.

The authors pick up on the individual versus system theme saying that:

When poverty is framed structurally, people assign responsibility to society at large; when framed episodically, focusing on the circumstances of a specific poor person, people assign responsibility to the individual.

Individualism is neoliberal heartland.

Our Tweets have to be about systems and the powerless of individuals to exercise choice when the system will not allow that.

The other danger is that we try to distill complex issues into short, sharp Tweets and then create so much dissonance that the standard mainstream frames just dominate the reverberation following the initial incursion.

Julie Sweetland and Rob Shore write that:

The average person has little daily contact with most topics on the public agenda …. Typical nonprofit messaging doesn’t help the public get smarter about issues … how causes lead to consequences is left out entirely …

But, in a positive vein, “people can quickly grasp expert insights and begin to reason using research-based concepts, as long as they have a well-framed explanation using metaphors or causal sequences.”

“Explanation is a worthy and important goal” for the reframing exercise.

The question is how to proceed with that explanation.

We don’t want to just quote facts.

Instead we want to introduce causality within a factual context and then refer the reader on to a more detailed analysis.

Twitter is great for directing readers to research and analysis. It is a poor environment for actually having debates.


The points covered in this post include:

1. Understanding the nature of the medium being used – the language, grammar, shaping capacity etc.

2. Understanding how people learn things and form views.

3. Understanding how reframing begins.

4. Understanding pitfalls in use of social media as part of the reframing exercise.

In Part 3 (tomorrow perhaps), I will give some MMT-focused Tweet examples we have been working on that address some of these concerns.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. >In one recurring case, I have actually met the person at an event and Rational choice theory …

    Big formatting error on the “Rational choice theory” URL.

  2. It may be that the communicative character of light may have been missed due to its unfamiliarity. What McLuhan says about light as a communicative medium can be said of a pencil. A pencil, in and of itself, has no “content” either but can be used to spell out messages. The pencil was in its time radical and decentralized. In a way, I think this may be part of what Culkin is communicating.

  3. I disagree with Tversky and Kahneman’s claim that the two problems can be seen to be identical. Gigerenzer has shown that people don’t understand probabilistic situations. Even medics have trouble when faced with probabilistically formulated medical problems.

  4. At least, Tversky and Kahneman are clear about what they mean by being rational. One is rational in making a decision when presented with a solution set if it is carried out in accordance with the Kolmogorov axioms of set theory. And the way they frame many of their solution sets adheres to this way of formulating a problem.

  5. If people were able to make rational choices they would quickly recognize the superior explanatory power of MMT over the mainstream in macroeconomics and only a few among those who are underemployed, underpaid or see their small business becoming less profitable as they work harder, actually do.

    The linguistics approach to programming minds has been very subtle. It’s involved planting seeds here and there in the form of context shaping key words inserted to shift narratives and worldviews over time frames of decades. The amount of consistency and repetition required to be effective on a large scale means you must largely own the most effective media.

    Since most people have little to no education in economics, and, they are flesh and blood rather than computers, full of emotion shaping the way they make decisions, a similar approach will be needed by MMT, because it’s too difficult for most to accept that their increasingly hard to earn tax dollars are not prerequisite to funding government projects.
    That tax dollars collected are applied in federal government bookkeeping as deficit reducing revenue is a major impediment to understanding. The notion that the taxes themselves are not necessary except as the stick to create fiscal space seems to be a large hurdle for most.

  6. I recall reading one of McLuhan’s book ages ago. I read about some of these issues in the papers occasionally and wonder if you will get to post-Cambridge Analytica-scandal alternatives to Facebook, including mewe.com. One difference between such a site is that one can set up a group (closed or open) and have discussions without giving up one’s data or privacy or being manipulated–or at least that is the hope. The within-group discussions might seem to be a distinct social media issue and strategy warranting some comment along with Twitter, and I would be interested in your thoughts.
    By the way my own econ blog site is now up and running following an attack, but with a changed appearance that will need a bit of work.

  7. Greg, if I may suggest, grey on black is impossible to read. A lighter color is needed. Or a lighter background.

  8. Very interesting.

    15 years ago I found Norman Fairclough’s book New Labour New Language very interesting about framing and the importance of language in political discourse. He analysed Blair’s clever manipulation of language to create his brand of “fauxilism”. Worth a read – even if we’re past the Third Way stuff now…

    The problem I see with social media is that we all tend to close ourselves off in the community of the like-minded. When we all used to read national newspapers and watch public television we used to have some shared common experience – we all watched the same interview and could discuss it the next day – now we all read what we already agree with. And the algorithms present us with what we already agree with.

    Twitter is such an impoverishment of political discussion. I despair and boycott it.

  9. The problems with social media are one of my main reasons why I keep saying that the only way to change America [at this point] is out in the streets.
    Non-violent mass demonstrations are NECESSARY.
    Whether you aim to reform the Dem Party or you intend to start a new party, mass demonstrations are the only way to go.
    To start a 3rd party or co-opt the Greens [and go on to win enough elections], you must convince the majority of the American people that your party has a huge block of voters behind it. To force the leaders of the Dem Party to change it or leave it, you must again convince the leaders that your wing of the party has a huge block of voters behind it.
    Look at other nations. All of them had a mass of people in the streets. Part of the reason is to show each other that we/they are not part of a small group. No mass demonstrations in the streets equals failure.

  10. I know in this post it speaks of Twitter. Have you noticed how the post posts to Facebook with no tag headline? Nothing to drag the reader in?

  11. Speaking of social media have you noticed how this posts to Facebook? With no headline it is unlikely to be read.

  12. frames are all well and good, but they cant overcome prejudice, and more particularly prejudice driven by ego.

    the laws of self preservation , says you keep doing and believing whats got you to this point in your life , until the counter factuals that present themselves in your life become so painful , then you may re assess.

    so mmt can do all the re framing it wishes, but it will not get traction until the emperor has no clothes so to speak , and the economic pain associated with it becomes unbearable.

    a real hole has to be dug for mmt to fill, not just a metaphorical one . let cognitive dissonance do the work for you

    no ones going to give you credit for trying to fix something that they feel isn’t broken yet 😉

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