Yes We Can Go Forward and Believe in America! When did US campaign slogans become self-help mantras?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Something’s happened to presidential campaign slogans. Something affirmative. Motivational. Inspiring. Yes! They’ve become self-help mantras.

Romney’s got his rather hectoring “Believe in America” and Obama’s gone for the grammatically pointed “Forward.” - the much discussed full-stop signifying, apparently, a mind set on its course. Last election of course we had the rabble rousing chant “Yes we can”. The tone now borrows from life coaches where it once borrowed from the advertising industry (I like Ike, Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge), and this time it’s much harder to oppose. Agreeing is not only right – it’s healthy!

This would be all very clever, but the trouble with life coaching is that it’s already been through several loops of cultural backlash. If a film features fairground music we know a grisly murder is not far away, and if a character recites motivational mantras, that is a character primed for gentle tragedy.  In fact I’m so damaged by the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and The Office that I can’t hear Romney’s slogan without picturing him saying it in front of a mirror (“I believe in America. I believe in myself. I am a strong, independent individual moving daily towards a better future”) before bursting into tears and eating Ben and Jerry’s straight from the tub.

But there is also something intrinsic about the tragi-comedy of motivational quotes. Who really springs into action after reciting a wholesale phrase about how great they are? The slogans seem to mock you, denying a gap between where you are and where you want to be (“I am the best presidential candidate in the world, EVER”), and making the gap all the more apparent in the process. It could only be a matter of time before science found they didn’t really work.

A paper published in Psychological Science looked at the differences between "declarative" talk (yes we can) and interrogative talk (can we, though?). Scientists Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin took fifty three undergraduates and gave them some anagrams to solve – (like rearranging the letters in “cause” to spell “sauce”). But before they were allowed to start the task they had to spend a minute talking to themselves. One half were in the “Will I?” group – they had to ask themselves whether they could complete the task. The other was the “I Will” group – they had to tell themselves they would. The groups were then given ten minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible.

Raised on Nike adverts and positive thinking, we might expect the assertive group to do better. They are pumped on self belief, after all, where as the other group have only mild self doubt. But no – the “Will I?” group solved 25 per cent more anagrams. Real motivation seemed to come from the question, rather than the pre-emptive answer.

The scientists thought that the question helped people to tap in to intrinsic motivation – whether they actually wanted to do the activity for themselves. They found they did. The extrinsic hectoring actually blocked their internal motivation.

So there we are, Obama, just a small change in punctuation is needed. “Forward?” Yeah, go on then.

Mitt Romney and wife. Photograph, Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.