Archive for the ‘Networked Age’ Category

The rise of the ‘Super Distruster’ is a major challenge for communicators

Posted on: September 18th, 2023 by Alexandra Stamp

The rise of the ‘Super Distruster’ is a major challenge for communicators

Nearly one-third (29%) of UK adults are “Super Distrusters”, who believe the country is going in the wrong direction, our institutions have been corrupted, and that this is the fault of self-serving, hostile and incompetent elites, according to Wave 6 of MHP’s Polarisation Tracker – Super Distrusters vs The Elite.

This is the key finding of cluster analysis performed by Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab, using data from the September 2023 wave of MHP’s long-running Polarisation Tracker.

Super Distrusters’ hostility towards the system presents a big challenge for big business and government, which are regarded as the most elite and untrustworthy institutions.

Download the MHP Polarisation Tracker Wave 6 here:

Super Distrusters also pose a problem for wider policy goals, including delivering Net Zero, safeguarding public health and reducing online harms, which will all require the public to adopt and adapt to new ways of doing things. Super Distrusters are less likely to co-operate and more likely to disbelieve the case for change or the people making it.

Research findings headline news in The Sunday Times

A diverse population of 16 million people, ‘Super Distrusters’ defy all traditional political and democratic categorisation: Some worry about the enemies of growth, Marxist institutional capture, thought police, cultural erasure and ‘the new elite’. Others worry about a rapacious capitalist class, a reactionary plot against social progress, racist and misogynist police, conservative gatekeepers and ‘the old elite’.

While Super Distrusters’ specific concerns and targets vary, their analysis leads them to the same place, distrustful of traditional authority, expertise and increasingly hostile to innovation and technology, which they see as having the potential to give more power to authoritarian elites. Protests against ULEZ cameras, 15 Minute Cities and digital cash are all manifestations of these fears.

Stagnant growth, global lockdowns, vaccine mandates, rising living costs, and increased censorship have all helped to fuel public scepticism, while the Networked Age has brought with it unprecedented levels of transparency. Often, people in power have been found wanting and new ways of doing things have not delivered the progress promised.

And Super Distruster concerns reflect a wider social unease. Even among more trusting audience groups, we found that the more closely associated something or someone is with the elite, the less likely they are to be considered trustworthy.

To engage with Super Distrusters effectively, communicators must change their approach, in three important ways.

Firstly, communicators can no-longer ignore Super Distrusters.

As Coutts, the West Yorkshire Police and the National Trust have recently discovered, Super Distrusters are increasingly motivated and organised, supported by counter-elites, and listened to by politicians. Communicators need to address their strongest arguments and engage legitimate critics beyond the media bubble in order to build trust.

Secondly, tech utopianism is over.

From AI to the metaverse, communicators should encourage more open debate about risks and safeguards, rather than casting critics as luddites. Technology storytelling needs to emphasise individual empowerment rather than systemic efficiency.

And finally, institutions must become more comfortable holding each other to account.

In the era of stakeholder capitalism, collaboration replaces competition among government, business, media, and civil society. However, to those sceptical of elites, this cooperation can resemble collusion, making brand purpose campaigns seem like social engineering. Super Distrusters see a monolithic managerial class and believe the media and NGOs prioritize holding the public accountable over the powerful. Even if people disagree with M&S on the fate of Oxford Street or BMW on the EU’s electric vehicle strategy, they welcome these arguments being aired in the open.

Brands that are more transparent about their motives, and challenge government on behalf of the consumer will reap dividends.

Coming soon – We will be launching companion guides to the consequences found in the MHP Polarisation Tracker for three key areas: Net Zero, Finance and Science and Technology.

Ten books to navigate The Networked Age

Posted on: March 2nd, 2023 by Nick Barron

Our Networked Age approach began life in the pages of some brilliant books, which explain why people think and act the way they do. So to celebrate our work for World Book Day, here is a list of brilliant books, from history and psychology to politics and anthropology, that helped shape our thinking, many of which are written by our expert partners.

1. The Square and the Tower, Niall Ferguson

This book coined the term ‘The Networked Age’ and is a brilliant historical guide to how communications networks change the world, upending traditional hierarchies and bringing about periods of foment. From the town square and the printing press to social media, Ferguson explains that networks are not egalitarian, instead concentrating power in a small number of influencers.

2. The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

More than any other book, this illustrates why the Networked Age’s Rules of Influence matter to our communications. Haidt explains how instincts drive human reasoning and facts are a secondary consideration. From here, he explains why tribalism is such a powerful force and why people with different opinions are almost incapable of understanding each other’s arguments.

3. A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell

Sowell defines the two fundamentally different worldviews that underpin all ideological differences. Every political argument you will ever have relates to the difference between the “constrained” and the “unconstrained” view of the world. Unless you understand how each side sees the world, you cannot persuade them.

4. Influence, Bob Cialdini

The co-founder of our partner agency Influence at Work is also the godfather of persuasion, defining the six behavioural science principles every communicator needs to understand to influence audiences.

5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

The book that introduced the concept of System 1 (fast, instinctive and emotional) and System 2 (slow and deliberative) thinking to the mainstream. Kahneman explains how fallible the human mind is and shows the ways in which we frame arguments and choices can lead to very different outcomes.

6. Messengers, Steve Martin & Joseph Marks

Two of our long-time Networked Age research partners, Steve Martin and Joe Marks, explore the eight types of effective messenger and show that the messenger is as important as the message.

7. The Influential Mind, Dr Tali Sharot

MIT and UCL neuroscientist Tali Sharot was the co-author of our Networked Age Guide and, in this book, she examines the biases that shape our decisions and what communicators can do to overcome them and influence audiences.

8. Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Revealed preferences (what people do) are often more insightful than stated preferences (what people say they will do) and in this book, the author sifts through digital data like Google searches to find out what people really want. It’s a great guide to why surveys aren’t always a good way to get to the truth if you want to create an effective strategy.

9. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

Documentary maker and podcaster Jon Ronson meets people who have been cancelled and learns their stories, asking important questions about the ethics of social media activism.

10. Poles Apart (Why People Turn Against Each Other, and How to Bring Them Together), Ali Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne, Alexandra Chesterfield

Written by the team behind MHP Group’s depolarisation consultancy Accord, this book explains the psychology of polarisation and how it is influenced by the stories we tell each other.


MHP Group launches Wave 5 of the Polarisation Tracker

Posted on: February 24th, 2023 by MHP Group

Wave 5 of the MHP Group Polarisation Tracker, produced in partnership with Cambridge University Political Psychology Lab, is now available.

In Wave 4 of the Tracker, published in summer 2022, we found a strong correlation between a belief that the economy is performing poorly and hostility towards elites. If your fortunes are worsening, you are more likely to believe that the ‘people in charge’ are aloof, conspiratorial and actively hostile to your interests.

Since then, the economy has worsened and across the board people we surveyed are now more pessimistic about their own, future generations and our collective prospects.

So what effect has that had about how the British public now feel about elites?

The public are suspicious: Three quarters of voters believe ‘people in power often work together to frustrate the will of the people,’ while two thirds believe ‘mainstream media aren’t really independent, they work together to push the elite’s political agenda.’

This populist critique straddles the political divide and presents major challenges to businesses, media brands and other institutions. It also creates a vacuum unscrupulous political actors could step into. At a time when we are already divided this is a vulnerability that we have a responsibility to address

Elsewhere, the data uncovers a deep sense of misgiving and pessimism about the road ahead. Divisions persist between groups, but there are points of unity, and in general the public is united in despair. The cost of living crisis resonates through our entire findings – 85% of respondents told us they were experiencing financial difficulties. A rise from our previous tracker.

Everyone agrees things look and feel bleak. There is a widespread belief that future generations will have it harder than ones before and that Britain is headed in the wrong direction as a country. When people think the system is rigged against them – even if it isn’t – hostility and support for civil disobedience can rise.

So this time, we conducted questions to test how people would feel if tensions continued to escalate. Would people have sympathy for striking workers, for those who refused to pay bills they could not afford, if people took part in unlawful protest? Whilst theory suggests economic hardship will divide we uncovered a more generous picture – at least for now.

Using a vignette based on a story in Panorama, we found a high degree of sympathy for those who were struggling so refused to pay their bills or taxes. This means the momentum behind the ‘do not pay’ movement may continue to gather pace, and support. The Government may find it increasingly difficult to deliver on its agenda. Unprepared businesses could find themselves caught in the crossfire.

In previous waves, voters have told us they are broadly unimpressed by businesses speaking out about political issues, and the hostility towards brand activism (especially related to identity politics) has grown since Wave 4.

With recession looming, however, there is one field where brand activism is much more welcome: Economic policy. We found widespread support for the outspoken criticism senior executives from the British Chamber of Commerce and Evercore made  on the economic instability during Liz Truss tenure as Prime Minister. We found widespread support.

There was support too, for brands that satirised Truss’ performance and seven week long Prime Ministership.

Underneath these findings remains a cause for real concern. Animosity between different groups in the UK remains high and increased. While our polling offers glimmers of hope that sympathy can cross divides, the environment we are operating remains one where tensions are likely to increase further.

As in the previous waves of this research we have worked with Lee de Wit and David Young at Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab. Their insight and analysis has strengthened both this research and the clarity of its implications.

All is far from lost but the signs are ominous, and their implications for leaders complex, challenging and unignorable.

Download Wave 5 of the Polarisation Tracker.

Launching the new Media Network Podcast

Posted on: February 20th, 2023 by Alexandra Stamp

We are excited to announce the launch of the Media Network Podcast.

Each episode, we’ll talk with high profile journalists and editors from across the media landscape, diving into the key topics and themes from across the newsrooms of the UK.

In our first episode, we are joined by Becky Barrow, News Editor at The Sunday Times, and Anthony France, Senior News Correspondent at The Evening Standard.

You can watch the full video below, or listen along on Spotify:




Social media as a polarising force: Trump’s return to Meta

Posted on: February 2nd, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

Go to Donald Trump’s 2024 Presidential Campaign site and you will be directed to take a survey. Among the questions designed to segment his audience are “What age do you identify with” and “Should critical race theory be banned in America’s schools” and “Do you believe Big Tech is censoring Republicans.”

Meta’s decision to allow Trump back on the platform won’t stop him pushing the narrative that fraud and corruption at big tech firms is evidence the “election was rigged”. Even Elon Musk, Twitter’s CEO who made the decision to release files about Trump’s suspension from the platform believes that claim is false. But painting someone as a baddie is a powerful mobiliser, and that suits Trump.

Musk had reinstated Trump after an entirely unscientific poll of users concluded 52% of them thought he should be reinstated. MHP’s more robust Polarisation Tracker asked if Musk was right to stick up for unfashionable voices that should be heard. Whilst the UK as a whole were evenly split on their response, lurking behind that was polarisation. Nearly 30% more people on the right (52%) than the left (24%) agreed with Musk’s actions to reinstate banned voices like Trumps. It would be wrong to see that as a portend America’s divisions will be replicated in the UK, but it highlights just how tricky the course Meta et al are trying to set is.

What is certain is social media has implications far beyond the platform, and companies are still struggling to keep pace with what this means. Built around algorithms which reward content that engages and provokes, social media companies’ models can be easily manipulated meaning we see only the most extreme versions of the “other side”. Moderates get muted and it evaporates a middle ground, creating a sense of polarisation that may not, yet, exist. Since 2016 social media companies have responded with measures to help limit these dynamics. New political adverts are restricted in the run up to polling day. You can no longer target based on political affiliation. It’s harder to run thousands of variations of an ad than it was.

But it is the ability for people to build audiences and ecosystems off social media which remains overlooked as a polarising force. For all the justifiable focus on the content, platforms allow campaigners to amass the details of millions of people to keep in touch with through other channels. Email. Text. Apps. Those are used to seed ideas, deepen links and raise funds. As the Jan 6th Committee found, when they unusually took the time to scrutinise the Trump campaigns emails the content was designed to be “red meat”. Freed from the standards enforced on the platform they were fertile ground for the big lie – that the election was rigged – to spread through. With up to 25 messages sent a day.

For businesses too they can find themselves dragged into polarisation. The restrictions on political criteria to target audiences leaves operatives using consumer preferences to reach potential voters. Republicans filter out those who like Whole Foods and in those who like Nascar. Democrats exclude customers at the outdoor store Bass Shop Pro and in fans of Lady Gaga. If suddenly customers start to be bombarded with political messaging from one side or the other businesses may find their audience becomes more polarised. Polarisation can have many unintended consequences and once it reaches past a certain point becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The question is, can the safeguards Meta et al are putting in place prevent that, or with audiences now built are they simply shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?

The Network Effect: Turning Supporters Into Advocates

Posted on: October 13th, 2022 by Tomas White

The Network Effect: Turning Supporters Into Advocates

Today, only half of people regularly advocate for a cause they believe in or a brand they love.

For communicators, this is a huge untapped opportunity. If we can unlock and harness our advocates, they will tell our stories for us, reaching their tribes authentically. We can change minds faster and more effectively by engaging the people our audiences listen to, who will then engage their own tribes. This is a domino effect we call The Network Effect.

To harness The Network Effect we need to tap into what makes supporters advocate and overcome what stops them. Working with behavioural science experts at Influence at Work, we have identified ten factors which shape our willingness to speak up or share content.

  1. Identity
  2. Loyalty
  3. Connection
  4. Obligation
  5. Reward
  6. Intention
  7. Commitment
  8. Impact
  9. Backlash
  10.  Trust

Some will make us advocate, others will hold us back, and they effect all of us to different degrees. That’s why we worked with Savanta to develop a nationwide study to measure how these impact different types of audiences. By understanding what makes our audiences speak up, what might stop them, when they may promote and when they may criticise, we can adapt messaging, content and communications strategies which are truly effective.

Engaged effectively your supporters can reach people you can’t, influencing opinion where you hit walls, and creating a domino effect of advocacy.

The Network Effect harnesses the power of your supporters.

Listen below to hear Deputy CEO, Nick Barron, Head of Strategy Kate Gomes, and COO of Influence at Work Sophie Armour introduce The Network Effect.



To find out how the network effect can increase the reach and effectiveness of your campaign, contact the team: [email protected].

Scientists are polarising the public

Posted on: August 31st, 2021 by Tomas White

In response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, wrote:

“The IPCC report is clear: nothing short of transforming society will avert catastrophe… individuals, employers, institutions and international partners will need to work together to understand the trade-offs, agree compromises and seize opportunities.”

In other words, reaching Net Zero will require sacrifice. But, as governments have found time and again — on issues ranging from house building to adult social care — agreeing on the problem is the easy bit. Building support for a specific plan is the hard part. A Government fond of Cakeism and fearful of a Red Wall backlash has delayed publication of the Treasury’s report into the cost of achieving Net Zero, precisely because it fears the political cost of that sacrifice.

Last year, when government needed lockdown compliance, scientists like Witty, Van-Tam and Vallance were deployed to make the case for sacrifice. It worked. The government will be relying on their persuasive power again.

However, the results of the second wave of the MHP Mischief Polarisation Tracker — our study of UK public opinion, produced with Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab — suggest that scientists are losing their reputation as unbiased seekers of truth, weakening their ability to galvanise public opinion.

Between Wave 1 of the Tracker (conducted December 2020 / January 2021) and Wave 2 (June 2021), voters became more likely to say that scientists were a biased source of information, with right wing voters registering a particular increase in perceptions of bias. While scientists are still seen by both left and right as the least biased source of information, this was the biggest shift among the six categories we examined:

Worse, scientists are the second-most polarising source of information on our list. This means they are at risk of taking on totemic status in the UK’s culture war, with left wing voters adopting them as being on “their side” and right wing voters rejecting them in response.

In this scenario, scientists’ words will be treated as unquestionable truth by the left and deeply suspicious by the right. This is both antithetical to the spirit of scientific enquiry and unhelpful to the cause of building political consensus.

Why is this happening?

The first cause is the politicisation of the pandemic, which has morphed from a “practical” debate about flattening curves to a “values” driven debate about what kind of society we want to live in. Scientists have been at the forefront of the debate and politicians have sought to borrow their credibility — instead, they have drained it.

The second is the media prominence of scientist-activists (most notably ‘Independent Sage’) whose biases have come under increasing scrutiny (note, our study pre-dated ‘Madeley vs Michie’ and the broader controversy over Sage’s Communist influences). Oxford scientist Trish Greenhalgh recently blamed the media for ‘pitting scientists against each other’ and feeding polarisation, but she was also one of the architects of a public letter by scientists that called plans to unlock ‘a dangerous and unethical experiment’ by the government. This is precisely the kind of language that polarises opinion.

The third is growing concern about biases within the Academy. From proposed legislation to defend free speech on campus to high-profile political protests by academics themselves, 2021 has seen a rise in the number of stories which blur the lines between academia and politics. While a recent study by Kings College found university bias to be a minority concern, focus on the issue is growing.

And finally, attempts to shut down avenues of debate and scrutiny inevitably lead to a backlash. The initial censorship of the Lab Leak theory did great damage, suggesting collusion between media, government, tech and the scientific community. If you believe that one of those institutions is biased, then the transitive law applies to the other conspirators. You are all as bad as each other in the mind of the observer.

As our Tracker data shows, the scientific community still broadly enjoys the public trust, but this cannot be taken for granted. Scientists need to exercise caution and be careful not to stray too often over the line between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. Most importantly, they should call out those who seek to use them as pawns in their political battles.

To win public support for action on Net Zero, politicians will need to rely more on science, but less on scientists.