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Is the Manipulation of Information a Misuse of Power?

When conducting training for new leaders, one of the basic concepts we explore is how they obtain and use the different sources of power. There are five basic bases of power; positional (legitimate), reward, punishment (coercive), expert, and referent (respect). Additionally, there are two other forms of power, “connection” power and “information” power. Each of these forms of power can be used in a functional or dysfunctional way. What determines if it is functional or dysfunctional depends on the circumstances in which the power is used.

When reading the newspaper, watch news on TV, magazines or even while reading through or “lurking” social media posts, I try to think about the content information critically and from the perspective of, “What does this really mean or show?” What I find is that many times the information has been manipulated or misrepresented somehow.

To provide some context, using the circumstances of a social media post, consider this example: A person shared a comment on social media which said: “Someone shoots up a bar and everyone goes ballistic. PGE just killed 31 people and Jerry Brown passed legislation, so they won’t be held accountable.” When asking the person who posted the comment, “So, is there actually an Assembly Bill or Senate Bill, or codified law that was signed exempting PGE? I'm just trying to determine if there was actually a law or bill signed?” The response was, “…Of course not, Lol. Back room deals. Lol. Knowing your nature & required evidence of such matters, as I said, film at 11. When this plays out (years) you will see.”

The assertion of “passed legislation” versus “back room deals” is quite different. So, we must ask the question, what is the purpose of the information in the original post? And also ask, was the information manipulated or misrepresented?

Was the information in the post designed to elicit a certain emotional response, or just provide facts, or assert a predisposition, or start a rumor? Was this an intentional attempt to manipulate information? If so, what was the motive or purpose behind it? Is the motive or purpose functional or dysfunction? It’s hard to say without much more information.

This is exactly the problem we face as a society in the “Information Age.” Information can, and has been selectively circulated, concealed, altered, distorted, or ignored to meet or present a certain purpose. This isn’t just possible to be done by the government (which conspiracy theorist always assert), but also by individuals, businesses, profit and non-profit organizations, schools, media, social media and anyone else that can communicate in today’s world. Basically, what this means is that everyone possesses power in the form of information, and everyone can use it in functional or dysfunctional ways.

Information, whether manipulated or not, is now an equalizer, a weapon, a power that can be used to repair a perception of inequity, or unbalance. Information can be used to fact-check assertions, attempt to discredit someone, get “intelligence” on people, or just to be mean and spiteful. Rumor holds as much weight, and sometimes more, as truth in many instances. So, knowing if something is a fact or an opinion is also important when attempting to understand the information.

Now here we are, in a world where information is instantly accessible (just do a Google search for “information” and you’ll get about 13,340,000,000 results in 0.36 seconds). Not only is that fast, but it adds to the amount of information power of everyone with a smart phone, tablet, laptop, computer or other device, who know how to access it. The problem now is, how do they use the information power they have? And since it is power, just like the ability of someone to use punishment and reward power, positional authority, expertise, respect and connection to influence others, are they using it appropriately?

In my opinion, with more than 30 years working in the law enforcement field, where information (or misinformation) is frequently used as a weapon against others, information can be equated to the use of any weapon. In that, information (like any other weapon) can be used properly, for a functional purpose to support the norms and goals of society, or it can be used for a dysfunctional purpose to commit crimes and go against the norms and goals of society. Just ask any seasoned investigator about how they get “information” from “informants.” The one using the information, just like the use of any weapon, makes the choice of whether it is used in a functional or dysfunctional manner.

Because of this, I think that the manipulation of information, just like the misuse of a positional power for personal gain, or the misuse of reward and punishment power to create a “quid pro quo” situation, is a misuse of power. Just like the use of a weapon, we must consider the way in which it was used, who used it, and for what purpose. It isn’t the weapon that causes the harm, it is the person wielding the weapon, their intentions and motives.

Putting it All Together:

Information, like rank or position, the ability to punish and reward, is a source of power. It can be used for functional or dysfunctional purposes, just like any of the other sources of power. We must consider information critically in order to know if the information is being manipulated to increase or decrease its power (+/- power). If the information is being manipulated to influence others one way or another, it is a misuse of power.

About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the author of "Because Why?...Understanding Behavior In Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior," and Owner of CMF Leadership Consulting. Chris is a developer/trainer/consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations. Chris holds a Doctor of Education (Ed.D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service where he last served as the Assistant Division Commander of Investigations.

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