What Two Themes Helped Get Cannabis Legalized in So Many States So Quickly?
A Brown University researcher used machine learning to analyze more than three million Reddit comments from 2009 to 2019—a key timeframe in the state-level cannabis legalization movement—to better understand online conversations that have driven people to back cannabis reform. from science
The history of cannabis re-legalization is documented online and now a researcher used machine learning to discover what kinds of posts actually influenced legalization. As someone who has written their fair share of cannabis posts over the years, I was interested in seeing which of my posts actually had some influence in the grand scheme of things.
The research comes from Babak Hemmation, a researcher from Brown University who was working on his Ph.D. dissertation and analyzed over 3 million Reddit Comments from 2009 – 2019 to analyze how the conversations on social media platforms evolved alongside legalization efforts.
The paper entitled, “Taking the High Road: A Big Data Investigation of Natural Discourse in the Emerging U.S. Consensus about Marijuana Legalization” shed some interesting insights on what type of posts had the most impact on legalization and how these posts changed once the plant was legalized.
“Marijuana legalization is a highly unusual topic in how a bipartisan consensus was reached in a matter of years while the American society was otherwise becoming more polarized,” Hemmatian told Marijuana Moment. “I wanted to know if the way the public discusses marijuana facilitated this unusual shift, and how the societal change in attitudes in turn affected how we talk about cannabis.”
It turns out that “Character Judgements” were major precursors to legalization. Essentially, posts that framed Prohibitionists in a negative light helped more in shaping people’s views on cannabis legalization than personal anecdotes. Personal anecdotes talked about how cannabis helped them cope with whatever ails them.
Therefore, it seems that “shaming the opposition” actually had a more significant impact. Nonetheless, anecdotes were used to beef up character judgements. For example, “Prohibitionists are cold hearted bastards (character judgement) because they want to prohibit people’s access to medicine. I use cannabis for my migraines and it really works better than any pharmaceuticals (personal anecdote).
Interestingly enough, actual topics about reform seems to be non-essential to legalization, despite the fact that how we would regulate cannabis would be assumed to be a top influencer. However, it turns out that most people weren’t as interested in “how to regulate” as simply “Legalize!” Additionally, health impacts did see a slight increase in prevalence post legalization – however, only in a casual manner.
“Both topics are highly relevant to whether and how the substance should be de-regulated, but were ignored in decision-making and at best attended to once the societal decision was already made,” the study author said.
Furthermore, the author continued;
“While not the most persuasive approach according to previous research, character judgments may have still pushed people who were on the fence but not diametrically opposed to legalization over to the pro-legalization camp…This is because they highly simplify decision-making: One no longer needs to know the complicated effects of cannabis on health, the economy and the society to make up their mind; they just need to think through their personal moral principles. This may have been comforting during a transition period when the uncertainty surrounding marijuana’s status would have been anxiety-inducing for many folks.”
According to the data, character judgements were the number one motivator for changing people’s mind. It reminds me of how Darwinism took root in mainstream science. There was a point prior to the popularity of Darwin’s theories where people predominantly believed the “creation story” of our origins. When Darwin proposed his theory, academia and “free thinkers” would label those who believed in the creation story as “backwards”, unevolved, and dumb.
As a result, people who did not want to be seen as such were more likely to accept the theory as truth and since then has become a bedrock of biological sciences – despite there being several potholes in the theory.
A New Dawn of Research
This trend of social media studying is something that many other institutions like NIDA and the FDA want to start implementing to get a feel for what the public thinks about their policies. Social media gives everyone who has a smartphone access to voice their opinion and as such, it is a goldmine for research. Of course, it’s a difficult thing to quantify since most of the opinions on social media are just that – opinions.
However, it is definitely a good tool in uncovering how people “feel” about a particular topic and if utilized correctly can give a lot of insight to people who are making policy. Often times, there are also very important information hidden within the comments and while they might not be ideal for convincing people – they do help researchers and writers like myself come up with interesting topics to relay to the masses.
Having an accurate depiction of the attitudes of users can help lawmakers make more informed decisions when creating policies. Also, it bridges the apparent disconnect we have with these individuals. People like Nancy Pelosi – who’s rich beyond the wildest dreams of the average Joe – have no idea how average people live. The political class only panders to their supporters – who tend to be large corporations these days. Therefore, having data that accurately reflect the sentiment of the people can help them make more informed decisions.
Of course, ideally we would want to remove these millionaire politicians as quickly as possible – but that’s a topic for another day.
The bottom line to this study is that when it comes to convincing people of anything – it’s far better to focus on creating character judgements on the opposition. Of course, in 2021, this has gone out of control. With a significant divide between “left” and “right” politics – everybody is trying to assassinate the character of the opposition and as a result are creating echo chambers.
While character judgement might have helped legalize weed – it shouldn’t be our standard for convincing people. We should embrace reason and logic as our main vehicles of convincing others. This study revealed to us not only what worked, but what’s wrong with modern discourse.
Can you convince people without assassinating the character of the opposition?
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