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Persuasion Duterte style: When emotion and repetition trumped facts

By Alexis Romero Published Jun 29, 2022 9:00 pm

It is not difficult to find online videos poking fun at sitting presidents, but a 42-second clip that made rounds on social media recently was more than just a funny post.

It was a montage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s quotes about his bloody war on drugs, a campaign promise that allowed him to beat his more moneyed rivals and win by landslide in 2016.

The first clip showed Duterte claiming to be losing an average of two soldiers per day in “drug-connected” operations. In the second spliced video, the President said he was losing two to three policemen a day. Another clip showed Duterte asserting that he was losing three to four policemen and soldiers a day. In the fourth video excerpt, the Chief Executive declared, “Until today and you can be very sure of this. I am losing on the average six to eight soldiers and policemen…”

He is a reminder of the importance of fact-checking.

Duterte’s remarks, which were delivered on separate occasions, were meant to counter claims that his drug war was violating the rights of suspects. By emphasizing that the drug menace was also claiming the lives of law enforcers, Duterte justified his controversial anti-drug campaign, which has drawn flak from human rights advocates here and abroad.

His figures, however, were often inconsistent and there were even instances where official data contradicted his assertions. In 2018, Duterte claimed that about 1,000 policemen and soldiers have died because of the drug war. But the Philippine National Police subsequently reported that only 87 law enforcers have been killed in drug raids from July 1, 2016 to July 31, 2018. 

Such inconsistent claims, along with his unusual working hours and his lengthy and freewheeling speeches, made Duterte a difficult yet interesting news subject. He is a reminder of the importance of fact-checking, a task that may not be immediately doable if it is already way past a journalist’s deadline and the most powerful person in the land is still ranting about a myriad of things, some of them possibly newsworthy. 

But Duterte’s contradictory statements do not just provide material for fact-checkers. They seem to reflect a thinking that does not give importance to facts but is more concerned about convincing others to adopt a view or talk about a topic. Such a mindset caters to people’s biases and emotions and assumes that one can capture hearts and minds through persuasion, not through accurate information. 

While he appeared to have violated every rule in the traditional politicians’ playbook, Duterte, whom I described as an “iconoclast” in the July 2016 issue of PeopleAsia, followed a template, albeit a different one. 

Duterte's recorded public address was usually aired around midnight. At a time, he also held live briefings also at midnight.

In the age of trolls, online disinformation and algorithms, the template that sidelines facts and emphasizes persuasive messaging appears to be a viable option for aspiring leaders. And there are indications that the technique worked during the highly divisive 2022 elections. 

Just like Trump
In his bestselling book How to Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, Scott Adams discussed how Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US presidential elections. Trump, who was often compared to Duterte, was described by Adams as a “Master Persuader,” someone who has “weapons-grade persuasion skills.”

According to Adams, Trump’s “extraordinary” skill at persuasion would trigger massive cognitive dissonance, defined in the book as “a mental condition in which people rationalize why their actions are inconsistent with their thoughts and beliefs;” and plenty of confirmation bias, or the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting one’s beliefs, “even if the evidence is nothing more than coincidence.” 

Adams, also the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, went on to claim that Trump used the “intentional wrongness” persuasion play often and it allowed him to attract attention where he wanted it. 

A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.

He said the method involved three stages: Make a claim that is directionally accurate but has a big exaggeration or factual error in it; wait for people to notice the exaggeration or error and spend endless hours talking about how wrong it is; and remember the idea to whom you have dedicated focus and energy since “the things that have the most mental impact on you will irrationally seem as though they are high in priority, even if they are not.”

A good general rule, Adams argued, is that people “are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.” 

Unfounded claims
A number of Duterte’s remarks about his pet issues fit the method tackled by Adams. 

As an example, Duterte made contradicting claims about the number of drug addicts in the Philippines and the law enforcers who were slain in anti-narcotics raids. He even got some of the basic facts wrong like when he talked about a drug cartel that came from “Señalosa,” instead of Sinaloa, a state in Mexico. 

The President also claimed that the International Criminal Court, which has allowed a probe of his drug war, is composed of “white” judges, even if the tribunal has Asian, African and Latin American magistrates. 

Because of the confirmation bias of his supporters, it did not matter whether they are factual or not.

Fact-checking groups have pointed out Duterte’s errors, inconsistencies and exaggerations but he still repeated many of them in his subsequent speeches. His rivals were relentless in pointing out his mistakes in social media but in doing so, they inadvertently helped him keep the drug menace in the public’s consciousness.

Perhaps this also explains why Duterte kept on repeating his tirades – a number of them baseless – against his critics. 

Duterte, who professed to the importance of 'press freedom' at times, had a testy relationship with the media during his term as chief executive.

His unfounded claims that Vice President Leni Robredo had joined rallies calling for his ouster, that opposition senator Leila de Lima had appeared in a sex video, that ABS-CBN has unpaid taxes and that news website Rappler is funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency all became part of collective consciousness every time he brings them up and whenever his remarks are amplified by trolls. And because of the confirmation bias of his supporters, it did not matter whether they are factual or not. 

Duterte’s persuasion technique also benefited his political allies.

During the 2019 midterm polls, the President repeatedly lambasted members of the opposition slate Otso Diretso. His insults ("Florin Hilbay is a turtle," "Gary Alejano does not make sense," "Chel Diokno is ugly," "Bam Aquino is just a lookalike of his uncle"), allegations ("Erin Tanada helped communists," "Mar Roxas wasted 44 lives,") and mockery ("Otso Diretso is heading straight to hell,") became staples of his impassioned speeches that usually lasted for two hours.  The persuasion technique seemed to have worked. Nine of the 12 candidates he supported won and none of the candidates critical of him secured Senate seats. 

Duterte also resorted to repetition, simplicity and visual persuasion to attack those who challenge his policies. His remarks on Sen. Richard Gordon’s weight and Chel Diokno’s teeth were rude but they were easy to understand. They drew cheers among his supporters, some of whom, because of cognitive dissonance, defended the President from those who insult his physical appearance. 

This posed a dilemma to reporters covering Duterte. Should we tweet or write about the unsubstantiated claims made by the highest official of the country? If we do, we might end up spreading falsehoods. If we don’t, we would get scooped by our competitors. I think the best way to resolve the dilemma is to point out his errors in the story and provide the audience the right information, even if some of them do not care about the facts.
Tried and tested?
The persuasion techniques were not enough to save Trump from a crashing electoral defeat during the 2020 US presidential polls. 

But it was a different story for Duterte. The tough-talking leader managed to maintain high satisfaction ratings months before he steps down from office, something that he himself found surprising.

The emphasis on repletion and emotion and the disregard for facts appeared to have done wonders for some of the candidates in the 2022 elections.

"I have yet to divine the—or to fathom the real reason why I remain to be popular," Duterte told his spiritual adviser Pastor Apollo Quiboloy last month.

Officials attributed this to the President’s programs and policies, but it is not unreasonable to think that his messaging also played a role. 

The emphasis on repletion and emotion and the disregard for facts appeared to have done wonders for some of the candidates in the 2022 elections.

Fact-checking group reported that former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. – who consistently called for unity during his campaign sorties – benefited from misleading claims in social media and yet he won this year’s polls by landslide.  

Perhaps this also explains why people keep on sharing false online posts that confirm their views about the personalities they hate; and why one Facebook user who had posted a photo of her with her daughter in graduation attire made a fuss over the uploading of the graduation photo of Vice President Leni Robredo’s youngest daughter, Jillian.

If you have ever tried to talk someone out of their political beliefs by providing facts, you know it doesn’t work.

In his book, Adams clarified that he was not expressing a preference for ignoring facts but he claimed that a Master Persuader can do it and still come out ahead.

“If you have ever tried to talk someone out of their political beliefs by providing facts, you know it doesn’t work. That’s because people think they have their own facts. Better facts. And if they know they don’t have better facts, they change the subject. People are not easily switched from one political opinion to another. And facts are weak persuasion,” he wrote.

It may be prudent for journalists and fact-checkers to examine how persuasion is used to gain public support so they can find a way to deliver accurate and relevant information in an era of hyperpartisanship and personalized truths.