How to be a Useful Idiot

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Given the rise in various “conspiracy theories” around the current pandemic and those who have been caught up in them, it is time for some explanation around how this happens and why.

I would like to dedicate this article to well meaning people who have become useful idiots in the promotion of various conspiracy theories.

I have written a related article on this topic about a new marketing technique called “Conspiracy Theory Marketing“. This article addresses a related topic, but focusses more on those who have become “useful idiots” in this process. For the purpose of this article a “useful idiot” is defined as someone who is often well meaning but does not recognize how they are being manipulated and used by a marketing campaign.

A rather nefarious technique used by vendors who seek to promote their products and/or services is to hijack genuine desires in a demographic to self-promote. This is achieved by targeting a demographic with ad campaigns that appear, at least superficially, to support their genuine desires and then present a product or service that offers fulfillment for those desires. This is at its core, highly dishonest, since frequently the product or service being promoted is either harmful or offers no real value to those being duped.

There is a long history of such activities primarily executed by marketing agencies. Here are a few examples from tobacco companies:

  • The Virginia Slims ad campaign was created to encourage more women to smoke since this demographic was seen by tobacco companies as an untapped resource of new customers since at the time, smoking was primarily a male habit. They did this by hijacking the genuine desire of women to be empowered to have more self-determination. They were successful and increased emphysema and lung cancer rates in women.
  • Another campaign from big tobacco was dubbed “The Marlboro Man Campaign.” This campaign was designed to reinforce the desire of males to appear more masculine and of course this would be achieved by smoking. As above, the great success of this campaign lead to more smoking and hence more emphysema and lung cancer in men.
  • A current campaign that is being run by tobacco company Rothmans Benson and Hedges is an “unsmoke” campaign which captures the genuine desire of people to quit smoking and then offers them their new line of products which include vaping devices and supplies. How this will shake out is yet to be seen.

There a many more examples of these techniques. The new version of these campaigns hijacks those who feel the “establishment” wishes to control them and to direct their behavior to promote hidden agendas. They are not completely wrong about that, since there are forces at work that are driven by self-interest and do impact government policy that in turn impacts all of us.

A rational critique of governments and their actions and policies is both reasonable and necessary to maintain a healthy democracy. From that perspective, the desire of those who are skeptical of governments is fair, however the key word here is “rational”. Once these legitimate desires are hijacked from rational critiques of government to irrational conspiracy theory based attacks, those who buy in, have become useful idiots.

As I noted in my previous article: “Conspiracy Theory Marketing“, if you peel back the layers on most of those who promote various conspiracy theories around the pandemic, they are relentlessly self-promoting. Those who do this kind of self-promotion could care less about the veracity of the information they are promoting, since revealing truth is not their purpose. They seek to create as much buzz as possible and recruit useful idiots to share the social media posts and videos they create to self-promote.

The unfortunate side-effect of these disinformation campaigns, is that those who would offer rational critiques of government, now appear as loonies and since their “critiques” are based on the demonstrable stupidity provided by various conspiracy theories, they are very easy to dismiss as “idiots” (i.e. useful idiots). In other words, since they offer no rational or valuable critique of the status quo, they are reinforcing the very status quo they are objecting to! Useful idiocy at its best!

It gets worse. The useful idiots who share social media that supports these conspiracy theories are supporting the marketing campaigns of those who create them and at the same time offering misinformation that can produce harms.

The other odd effect here, manifests as a kind of cognitive dissonance that occurs in these useful idiots. In order to rationalize their support of the nonsense they share, they convince themselves they are mentally superior to those who think the pandemic is a real thing and hence they are participating in a movement that seeks truth.

To be absolutely clear, the pandemic is a real thing and rational critique of how governments and healthcare systems react to, or manage the pandemic is also completely fair and desirable. The problem with useful idiots is that they fail to realize how they have been hijacked and therefore have nothing useful to add to the debate on how to manage pandemics and other healthcare issues.

We need to rationally critique our governments without falling prey to the disinformation campaigns being cynically manufactured for relentless self-promotion.

So to all useful idiots out there, time to wake up and see how you are being used, and then put your efforts into initiatives that are of value to your fellow human beings.

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