Psychological manipulation is an influence technique designed to change the behavior or beliefs of its target audiences through distraction, deception, and misrepresentation. One strikingly effective variant relies on the strategic deployment and exploitation of rumors, conspiracy theories, fake news, and other forms of what I call “extra-factual information”—a term that encompasses not only false or misleading information but also unverified statements and other sources of nonfactual knowledge, such as literature and “common sense”—in order to fan fears that have little or no basis in objective reality but ring viscerally true to target audiences.
U.S. President Donald Trump has shown himself to be a master practitioner of such manipulation, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration and refugee policy. Trump has systematically used distraction and the repetition of misleading information to conflate the real challenges of migration policy with false (albeit psychologically satisfying) ones, allowing him to normalize previously fringe solutions, including his well-known proposals to build a border wall with Mexico and bar Muslims’ entry to the United States.
In doing so, Trump has transformed the tenor of mainstream political discourse, stymieing the ability of journalists, politicians, and members of the public to effectively debunk his claims and thereby fundamentally altering the political bargaining space.
Combating Trump’s skilled use of deception and extra-factual information will take more than fact-checking—although the narratives he pushes often contain lies, they are successful because they feel true to, and purport to address the real concerns of, many American voters.
What those who seek to oppose Trump’s migration policies need is a compelling narrative of their own, one that takes voter concerns seriously, defining problems responsibly and offering comprehensible and attainable solutions. Unfortunately, whatever the shape and content of that narrative, the changes that Trump has brought to the United States’ public discourse and policy arena may prove more difficult to undo.
And perhaps this isn’t just Trump’s and reality.