Dannagal Young on how 'rigged' came to define a political identity If it sounds like political parties speak different languages, social scientist Dannagal Young says they do. She says politicians repeat certain words to speak to their base and move people to action.

TRH: Dannagal Young

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So we've heard how the meaning of a word can change and evolve, but how does a word become a weapon?

DANNAGAL YOUNG: So saying the election was rigged. They stole it from us.

ZOMORODI: This is Dannagal Young. She's a communications professor and has a new book.

YOUNG: I do. The book is called "Wrong: How Media, Politics, And Identity Drive Our Appetite For Misinformation."

ZOMORODI: Dannagal studies how words and language can be used not just to spread information or misinformation but how words can become a slogan, a shorthand for a way of seeing the world.

YOUNG: If you think about, for example, the word rigged, OK? Just the word rigged.

ZOMORODI: Centuries ago, rig would have conjured up images of fishing boats and freight.

YOUNG: Like, hooking up some kind of wire or fishing apparatus.

ZOMORODI: Later, it started being used to imply that something - usually an election - is fraudulent, a set-up.

YOUNG: There's bad actors. It's not the honest result.

ZOMORODI: And now...

YOUNG: When Trump repeatedly used the word rigged over and over and not just in the context of matter-of-fact discussion but in very emotional identity-activating conversations.


DONALD TRUMP: They're trying to rig this election.

ZOMORODI: Dannagal refers to this linking of a word with another idea or emotion as joint activation.

YOUNG: That kind of hardens the connection between them.


TRUMP: That the Democrats are trying to rig this election.

ZOMORODI: Heard repeatedly, it becomes synonymous with a belief system...


TRUMP: It is so rigged. The whole thing is rigged.

ZOMORODI: ...And for some, a rallying call.


TRUMP: We win in a landslide, and they steal it, and it's rigged.

YOUNG: So now you have not just the joint activation of rigged with election, and rigged with election with Trump, but also the activation of outgroup threat because now he's tying it to they stole it from us. So now that notion of rigging is done against us by them. All of that becomes not just reinforced in our minds, but repeated over and over. It's repeated in Fox News.


TUCKER CARLSON: The 2020 presidential election was not fair.

YOUNG: It's repeated in opinion shows on Fox News.


CARLSON: On many levels, the system was rigged against...

YOUNG: It's repeated on the One America Network and Newsmax.


GREG KELLY: 2020 election - it's already rigged. It's all set up...

YOUNG: It's repeated by your friends and family who, because of polarization in the U.S., will tend to share your political views. It's repeated by your neighbors who also, because of geographic sorting, will tend to, right now, hold your political views. That kind of chronic activation turns that word into an entire sort of treasure trove of meaning and identity.

ZOMORODI: The word in some ways, becomes owned by a particular group of people. Take the example of when a Democrat recently tried to use it. There was this situation in California when a representative there, Katie Porter - after she lost in the Senate primary she claimed that billionaires spent millions to rig the race. And that really seemed to confuse people saying, like, wait, what? A Democrat's using the word rigged? And later, she said she regretted it.


KATIE PORTER: So obviously, I wish I had chosen a different word because what happened...

YOUNG: The fact that she felt the need to apologize - that is not only fascinating from sort of a social science standpoint, but it also suggests that she recognized that she activated the wrong associative network in memory, you know?


YOUNG: She's like, I jumped in the wrong pool with that word.

ZOMORODI: In a minute, Dannagal Young explains the link between words, slogans and an appetite for misinformation.

YOUNG: We don't actually want the truth.

ZOMORODI: On the show today, the history and politics behind three words. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, the history and politics behind three words. We were just talking to social scientist Dannagal Young about the word rigged. Dannagal says Trump supporters latched onto that word because it explained the unimaginable.

YOUNG: The idea that how could Trump possibly have lost? - oh, well, he didn't lose. The election was rigged. Now, that understanding, that comprehension does not need to be empirically accurate for us to feel satisfied.

ZOMORODI: The power of one word to signal so much. You write that this ability to target people with language so quickly and so relentlessly is relatively new. Was that not possible, say, 50 years ago?

YOUNG: I firmly believe that that is true, not only in terms of our political identities, driving our behaviors, you know, with conservatives wanting to embody the norms of their team and liberals wanting to embody the norms of their team but also because the media environment was so different, right? 50 years ago, you had, you know, three major networks, and that was about it. And the gatekeeping authority of your legacy journalism outlets was very strong. And so you didn't have that same sort of porous, connected and grassroots information infrastructure that can be wonderfully democratizing for social movements but can also be a conduit for misinformation.

ZOMORODI: Like, that point that you said, like, you know, three networks - the news is the news. That's what you get. So people were looking for, you know, what happened in the world. But now you write that they're looking for something very different. What are those things?

YOUNG: Yeah, this does not sit well with most people. People are like, no, I just want to know the truth. Unfortunately, no, you don't. I don't either. We don't actually want the truth. Once a particular social identity is salient in our mind, then our motivations to understand the world are very much going to be driven by that social identity. What we are driven by as human beings is not so much accuracy. We are driven by motivations related to what I have dubbed the three Cs. And those are comprehension, control and community.

So we want to comprehend the world. That is, we just want to understand it, feel like we understand it, even if that understanding is not accurate. We want to have control. That is some sense of agency and power. Even if we're not truly empowered, we want to feel like we have power. And finally, is community. We want to feel like we are part of a social group, mainly because we survive in groups.

And so that is what makes us feel whole and safe is knowing that we are part of a community. And so my needs for comprehension, control and community I'm going to want to fulfill through the lens of that social identity. I'm going to want to understand the world the way that my team does. I'm going to want to control it in ways that are good for my team. And I'm going to want to enact community in the same way that my team members do.

ZOMORODI: I mean, more simply put - right? - I want to feel like I understand this world, that I matter in this world, that I belong in this world in some ways.

YOUNG: That's it.


YOUNG: That's it. And those three things are very functional for us as social animals.

ZOMORODI: I mean, obviously, you're a professor, and you do the research. But you've written about your own sort of personal experience and why you feel like you really understand this more than just researching and writing...

YOUNG: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...About it from your ivory tower.

YOUNG: Sure. My first husband was sick with a benign brain tumor that ultimately took his life in 2006. And his illness - it felt like it came out of nowhere. It was months of surgeries, him living in the hospital, me trying to raise our 1-year-old baby alone. It was - my whole world was falling apart, right? I hadn't finished my dissertation yet. I was in graduate school, and I have a baby, and my husband's dying.

ZOMORODI: Oh, gosh.

YOUNG: And it was very clear to me that if I didn't find some kind of pathway forward, I literally would lose my mind. A few months in, I'd say, I started looking online. Where could this have come from? Could this have been from his work? Were there other people at his office that have this? And then thinking about, what about the doctors? Are the doctors doing a good job? Why is he having multiple surgeries? Are they giving him substandard care? All of these negative cognitions - they were a reason to get out of bed because I felt no control over his disease. None at all. What those things offered me - they offered me targets to be angry at, right? Are there people who are doing bad things in the shadows, keeping those from us, and we shouldn't know about them?

That actually is the meta-narrative underlying all conspiracy theory beliefs, that there are people in the shadows who are powerful, who are doing bad things and hiding the truth from us. So I was, whether or not I knew it, down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole. And it offered me different versions of comprehension. Where did the tumor come from? It also offered me a sense of control because, OK, if there are chemicals in the environment, if it's his workplace or our neighborhood, then I could, you know, start an organization, and I could tackle that and have someone to be angry at. Turns out they're actually genetic and had probably been there since birth.

What changed my path was this giant group of friends, you know, who established very quickly that that's not how we are going to make sense of this, Danna. Like, and it's not helping Mike right now. Like, you being on the computer, looking up all of these conspiracy theories is not helping him right now.

ZOMORODI: I'm curious, like, do you remember some of the phrases or words that caught your eye that you think maybe made it more palpable in some ways to go down these rabbit holes?

YOUNG: There was - part of it was of some of the conspiracy theories were about big pharma, right? Like, big pharmaceutical companies might be benefiting somehow from this. There's also the word sheep. Like, people are being sheep. They're, you know, blindly following the leaders. And I think that word sheep is so interesting in the role that it plays, especially on the far right, you know, where you have people who pride themselves in valuing freedom, individual rights. So if you value freedom and individual rights, then being called sheep is like an utter violation of those values. And that kind of messaging once you evoke that emotion - it kind of opens the heart and the mind in a way that reduces your resistance, and you're just ready to rock and roll 'cause you're like, tell me what to do. Tell me what action I need to take.

ZOMORODI: I mean, the problem is also in that (laughter) we are exploiting this ability to target people because we want them to buy things or we want them to vote a certain way. Is there any hope for us not to be using words that can be laden and weaponized ever again in this kind of economy?

YOUNG: Well, the fact that the economics of our entire media environment are predicated on this sort of micrtargeting based on identity does not bode well, OK? I'll just be honest. However, at the individual level, there are things that we can do. So, for example, if in order to be a good member of my side, I avoid certain language, and I use other words to prove that I am a good member of my team, perhaps I could change it up as an individual and say I am going to perhaps acknowledge those places where I am not completely in alignment with my team.

And I think that we owe it to democracy to be more honest in our performances of identity. When I see folks online saying, for those of you who are not speaking up on what's going on in Gaza, you know, we - your silence is deafening. We hear you. And I think, what a shame because you're basically telling people that they have an obligation to put their flag in the sand one way or the other. And the - especially in a situation as historical and complex as this, is that what you want? Do you want attitudes and beliefs that are not very well thought out just as expressions of allegiance? Is that what we want? I don't think so.

ZOMORODI: Well, it's so complicated. There's just no space for that kind of nuance.

YOUNG: I feel like as - you know, as people engaging in the public sphere, we need to slow our roll a little bit. Allow for that nuance. Allow for the possibility. You don't see people saying, this is how I view this, but I might be wrong. Once you allow for that possibility, I'll tell you, it's a little bit unsettling because you're sitting in uncertainty, but it's also highly liberating because it says, you know what? I don't need to perform in accordance with this team membership in everything I say and do. I can be open to the possibility I might be wrong, and it could change. My view could change, and that's OK.

ZOMORODI: That makes sense to me, but I'm also wondering if we need to, like, walk around with a thesaurus so that we can have these conversations so that we can talk about things without it being coded somehow or being a dog whistle in some...

YOUNG: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Cases. I mean...

YOUNG: I think more important, we do need to give the benefit of the doubt. The notion that people who use the wrong words are somehow enemies because if you use the wrong word, you're clearly activating a framework of the outgroup. Well, has that person given you any reason to believe that they're a bad person or that they're unkind or that they're unjust? Giving people the benefit of the doubt is the only way that we're going to survive as a democracy. Truly.

ZOMORODI: That was Dannagal Young. She's a professor of communications at the University of Delaware. Her book is called "Wrong: How Media, Politics, And Identity Drive Our Appetite For Misinformation." You can see her talk at ted.com.

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