Manipulating Egypt's constitutional referendum

With voting now underway, do not be misled. The Egyptian leadership is far more sophisticated than you may think. They employ very advanced techniques in manipulating the public mind

You don't have to rig it..
Ahmed Abdel-Raheem
On 14 January 2014 15:49

According to the rationalist theory of voting, people vote on the basis of their material self-interest, are aware of why they voted, can tell a pollster what their most important concerns are, and will say ''yes'' to what best addresses those concerns.

However, this 350-year-old theory is false. As a general finding in cognitive science, people think in terms of frames and metaphors. Such frames and metaphors can exert a strong influence on voters' political cognition. Furthermore, the reasoning processes that framing addresses undergo are by no means conscious. That is, people don't notice that their opinions and attitudes are affected by frames.

Hence, it is wrong to believe that the facts will set you free, and that giving people hard information, independent of any framing, will enable them to reason their way to the right conclusion.  We know from cognitive science all this is false. When the facts don't fit the frames voters have, voters will keep the frames (which are, after all, physically in their brains), and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts.

In short, voters don't make decisions based on perfect cost-benefit analysis. Rather, they make judgments based on frames, metaphors, and moral worldviews.

The government message machine (or the media) in Egypt understands this, and tries to impose its frames without the public being aware of.  Over two weeks or more, the best selling Al-Ahram newspaper has tried to promote the constitutional referendum and to impose its ''Yes'' frame on the public.

In one cartoon, for example, it has depicted the referendum as ''the sun'' and the word ''Yes'' as a ''saw'' held by a man who cuts the neck off a snake labelled ''terrorism.'' In another, it portrayed the referendum as a ''torch'' that shines the lights on the face of a frightened devil labelled ''terrorism''.

Such metaphors highlight that the constitutional referendum is the light and hope to get out of our crisis and to defeat ''terrorism'', suppressing the fact that people have the right to say ''No'', that people said ''Yes'' before to the ousted president's constitution, and that people have the right to boycott the voting.

In a third cartoon, Al-Ahram has used religion to impose its ''Yes'' frame on the public, depicting an al-Mawlid bride (a sugar doll made as a tradition during the Prophet Mohammad's birthday celebrations), which is decorated on its sides with the two words ''Allah'' and ''Mohammad'', as saying, ''I invite you to my wedding, only after you vote ''Yes.''

This imaginative picture of a talking bride acts on the voters' religious feelings. Thus, it can significantly influence political opinions.

Al-Ahram also has tried to deny the plurality of voices by deflecting attention towards one ideology. Importantly, it ran a cartoon of the public as saying ''All of us will say "Yes''. Further, it drew a picture of the people as a ''father'' with so many children, and there was a message that reads, ''For you and your children, say ''Yes.''

Ahram repeats such narratives over and over until they register in the brains of the public.  These narratives don't just compel the reader, they identify heroes (people who vote ''Yes''), villains (people who will vote ''No''), and victims (children and teenagers who don't have the right to vote).

Further, repeating the ''Yes'' frame inhibits the ''No'' frame.

This is the scenario that the government message machine works so hard to impose. So whether you like the constitutional referendum or not, you must vote ''Yes.'' Thus, the other option, No, is meaningless.

Finally, some people wouldn't passively receive such frames, but many others would do so. The Egyptian leadership is far more sophisticated than you may think, which does not of course mean they will win.

A Contributing Editor to The Commentator, the writer, currently based in Europe, is an Egyptian poet, actor, and political intellectual. He is also pursuing doctoral research in cognitive science

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