How to tell you’ve been manipulated

Like many people in Malta, I watched the Prime Minister’s press conference last week. One thing which struck me was how manipulative it was. If you believed the Prime Minister, you may want to read this article to understand how he brainwashed you.

I

For those of you who haven’t followed Maltese news, here’s some context.

Visuals, body language and context matter

Soon after the Labour Party was elected in 2013, several accounts were opened in Panama by one Mr Brian Tonna. Mr Tonna had a desk inside the Prime Minister’s Office and was as close to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as can be. These accounts were opened in Panama for secrecy purposes and no one outside of the owners and Mr Tonna knew who owned them.

In 2016, the Panama Papers scandal broke. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists got documents revealing who held accounts in Panama. One of the accounts Mr Tonna set up was for a company called ‘Egrant Inc’. The Panama Papers don’t say who owned Egrant. Malta went into overdrive speculating about who the owner was.

On 20 April 2017, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote about Egrant. She alleged nominees held shares in Egrant on behalf of the Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat.

Prime Minister Muscat immediately ordered a magisterial inquiry into the matter. This inquiry found no evidence anyone in Dr Muscat’s family owned Egrant.

On the face of it, this seems to clear the Prime Minister’s name. It doesn’t because an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The inquiry ended a few weeks, ago. Dr Muscat held a press conference claiming success and threatening all who had spread “lies” about him and his family.

I’m interested in the manipulative techniques the Prime Minister deployed during the press conference.

This, I think, is the fun part of the press conference.

Read on and see if you agree with me.

II

For those of you who would like to see it again here’s the video from Dr Muscat’s Facebook page. The video has English subtitles. I’ve added links beside my points which take you to that specific point.

How manipulative do you think our Prime Minister is?

III

The first thing I noticed is the visuals. We often don’t realise how important visual cues are in making our decision. They influence us without us even realising about it2.

As an example, imagine someone stopping you in the middle of the street. The person has a clip board in hand, is well-dressed and approaches with a smile.
Now imagine the same person with grime on their unwashed face and dirty clothes.

Most people would shy away from the second person but be open to the first one.

Visuals matter.

If you disagree that visuals matter, leave a comment below explaining how you always date the ugliest people.

Setting the scene is a key manipulative technique because it affects your judgement. You’ll believe you’re being independent and reaching your conclusions on your own. You’re not.

Visual cues manipulate our decisions

Here’s what I noticed:

  • Dr Muscat had all the Labour Party’s MPs behind him. He and his wife were the people who allegedly siphoned money into Panama. It’s nothing to do with the party, or with government. Having all those people behind him – figuratively and literally – is a powerful visual.
  • He’s wearing a blue suit, and a blue tie. Blue is the colour of the opposition party, the Nationalist Party (PN).

What about body language?

IV

Body language is important because there are many tells that reveal what we’re thinking. From the way we touch our faces to the way our hands move, body language can be instructive.

  • Whenever the camera pans out to show us the full set of people behind him, look at the bottom right-hand corner. Finance Minister Scicluna hunches forward. He seems to be trying to make himself smaller. I’d say he’s embarrassed to be there.
    Or maybe he has bad posture; I can’t rule that out.
  • Dr Muscat keeps his hands on the podium. He comes across as being stiff, but I think he did this to avoid gesticulating. Hand movements can reveal a lot about what you’re thinking. If you see clips of him in other settings, he gesticulates a lot (even when he has a podium in front of him). The few times he does use his hands, he quickly places them back on the podium.
    I think he kept his hands on the podium on purpose, to avoid showing what he’s thinking.
  • The first time Dr Muscat gesticulates, he does so with his right hand. It’s the point where he asserts that he knew this was a whole lie. When talking about being wrongly accused most people are indignant. That’s an emotion. Their reactions are emotional. Dr Muscat uses his right hand which is controlled by the left-hand side of his brain. The left-hand side of your brain is the part that handles logic, not emotion3. His body language contradicts his words.
  • He doesn’t look up too often, perhaps because he hadn’t had much time to practice the speech. When he does look up, his expression is anger. He’s just been exonerated from what he calls “the biggest lie in political history.” He should be relieved not angry.
  • He talks about how these allegations are all lies. The volume of his voice increases a notch which is correct. You’d be annoyed too if you were talking about how you’ve been falsely accused. But he uses his right hand again.
  • Notice the small smile he gets when he starts talking about his wife not being there. Is he smiling because he’s talking about the one he loves, or because his wife is not there? I can’t tell.

Dr Muscat kept his hands on the podium to avoid showing what he’s thinking

  • When he talks about how people “attacked” his wife because they couldn’t get to him, he chokes up a bit. Notice how he focuses on the papers in front of him and cannot bring himself to look the audience in the eye.
    It’s as if he’s embarrassed with a lie. Or maybe he hadn’t revised that part. I can’t rule this out.
  • He gets emotional when talking about how he and his family went through a hard time. I thought this was par for the course with politicians. Can anyone explain why he’s taking it so badly?
    Or maybe he’s faking it.
  • He wipes away a tear as he talks about his children. Few politicians worldwide would bring their children into any situation. How many prime ministerial children can you name? Everyone softens at the mention of children and he milks this by showing enough emotion to merit a tear. He doesn’t cry when talking about the “harsh lies”, or when he talks about how he and his wife “laid in bed at night crying.”
    And he uses his right hand.
    (There’s an incredible split second between the point where he takes his hand away from his face and when the Labour Party MPs behind him start clapping. It’s a micro-expression. He smiles. See if you can see it.)
  • The MPs start clapping and the camera pans out to show the full room. Watch his right hand which, from the waist, shuts them up. The MPs, to a man, all obey, stop clapping and sit down. That point was choreographed.

What about the content?

V

The content is important because the way you frame a subject governs how people think about it. Framing is another important manipulative technique.

  1. Many others, including Manuel Delia and Occupy Justice, have pointed out that the Prime Minister misled people when he claims he’s innocent. I won’t repeat their points.
  2. “[…] by a magistrate I did not choose […]” Yeah, well, not really, though. The magistrate was assigned to the case by lot, as happens with magisterial inquiries. Ultimately, it’s the Prime Minister who selects magistrates.
    (Bonus point: Manuel Delia wrote about how the Prime Minister really shouldn’t be calling the magistrate independent)
  3. “It turns out that documents and signatures were forged […] in an attempt to present them as evidence against my wife and I.” The report mentions the forged signatures. There’s no talk about the intent behind these forgeries. But when you hear the word “forgery”, you’d think intent, wouldn’t you?

Have you been brainwashed?

  1. He talks at length about the evening that documents were allegedly smuggled out of the now-defunct Pilatus Bank. He also mentions the mysterious flight to Azerbaijan which, allegedly, carried evidence out of the country. This is overkill. He made his point when he states there is no evidence linking him or his wife to the allegations (Bullet 1 above). When you win an argument, you don’t need to keep making points.
    Unless you don’t think you’ve won, that is.

Given all the above, was this all a sham?

VI

Yes.

There are too many points which suggest that all isn’t as it seems. If someone you know thought the Prime Minister was being genuine, you have to ask yourself one simple question.

Has this person been brainwashed?

That’s what manipulation is all about.

Next week, I’ll go through one of the Opposition Leader’s performances.

Share this with someone who likes spotting hidden messages.

References

  1. Declarations of trust in Pilatus Bank safe: Egrant Inc shares held for Michelle Muscat; Daphne Caruana Galizia; Running Commentary 2017-04-19
  2. “The truth about relativity”‘ Predictably Irrational; Dan Ariely; Harper Collins; 2009-03-06
  3. Bicameral images reveal our two selves, Eden, Dan; View Zone; (Retrieved 2017-03-28) 
  4. Adjectives give you away; Manuel Delia; 2018-07-26

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