Communication techniques in politics (marketing and advertising) are becoming increasingly targeted. Online political marketing is now increasingly tailored for individual voters based on their political preferences, ideals, and values, fears even. So far, so relatively mundane. That is until, inevitably, someone comes along and finds out a way to manipulate all the mass data available online so they malignly influence prospective voters’ opinions on a grand scale. A kind of mass, digital Orwellianism, to use a well worn cliché.
For some years now masses of consumer and behavioural data, from open sources such as social media sites, have been collected and collated by large communication companies to develop psychographic profiles.
Polish psychologist Michal Kosinski has pioneered a psychological technique based on people’s Facebook activity, what they like and so on. Kosinski has devised a personality test along the lines of what has become known in psychometrics as the Big Five test or OCEAN: Openness to new experiences and readiness to non-conventional ideas; Conscientiousness, organisational attentiveness and attention to detail; Extraversion, how socially assertive you are; Agreeableness, relating to characteristics such as kindness, compassion and willingness to co-operate; and Neuroticism, dealing with stress and anxiety. Typical questions are answered by ticking three choices: accurate, inaccurate and neutral, Options you can identify with include: I have frequent mood swings, I respect others, I enjoy hearing new ideas, and I believe in the importance of art, and so on.
Although the answers are of course subjective it is claimed that from this information a reasonably accurate picture can be built that tells us about individuals’ personality traits – whether they are driven predominantly by fear or curiosity for instance. Such tests are obviously open to our own cloudy, subjective and distorting biases – both positive and negative. Nevertheless it is claimed that when the data are cleaned up an accurate and potentially predictive picture emerges of a person’s political leanings. After this a type of sentiment analysis (the identification and extraction of subjective information from text, also known as opinion mining) is used to compile a database profile of millions of voters’ preferences.
Three technologies are used: behavioural science (behavioural communications), data analytics and addressable ad technology. Deployed together they microtarget both consumers and citizens voting in elections.
The potential abuse of such technology is evidently disquieting. For a democracy to function properly citizens need access to as much information as possible, so they can make informed decisions. They can’t make informed decisions if the information that they are fed is micro-tailored to their ill-informed predispositions.
Worse, it is unlikely that expressed preferences will be subtle enough to register that voters’ actually care about others’ preferences too. That votes can and should be cast for a vision of society not just for the voter’s material furtherance. In particular that that vision should embrace the rights of others, of minorities, of the vulnerable, even of the despised.
Of course conclusions drawn from big data may not be as precise as many companies would like us to believe. Statistical analysis is based on probabilities and doesn’t always accurately predict voting preferences. Moreover future actions do not always follow from past behaviours and present attitudes. And the methodology behind the science isn’t completely clear. Yet in a sense this isn’t the point.
Paralleling the history of democracy, there have been concerted and often successful attempts to influence and control public opinion to suit the ends of elite political and economic groups. Edward Bernays, the father of the modern public relations industry and a nephew of Sigmund Freud, clearly understood this as long ago as the early 20th century. In ‘Propaganda’ (1928), Bernays argued that: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized”.
The point is that microtargeting people based on their psychological profile only has to work on the margins for it to be effective – a targeted group in a tight constituency say: low-hanging fruit.
The medium is not the message here: messages driven by microtargetting will tend to particular content. Microtargeting is well adapted, indeed conducive, to the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism: identify, measure, control. In this brave new world the only standard of value becomes market utility.
In the US millions of people have been fed on a diet of targeted propaganda and blatant misinformation by Fox News for years; many of those same people came out to vote in their droves for Trump. The agenda is Rupert Murdoch’s.
In our economically stagnating world, we are seeing populations lurch toward radical far-right ideologies and autocratic leaders. So what happens if an unscrupulous demagogue decides to weaponise this type of technology in the future? The misuse and abuse of the social sciences, in particular psychology, for propagandistic ends has happened before, notably with Nazism and Goebbels. We must only read Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi to know where it ends.
Arendt warned us in the wake of WWII, after the persecution and industrial destruction of both European Jewry and the Roma and Sinti, of what happens to seemingly ordinary people when we are exposed to mass political manipulation for extreme causes and ideologies, and the very real and inevitable violence that follows. ‘We’ or ‘they’, depending on how you see it, become as Arendt put it as a result of this exposure quite literally ‘thoughtless’ in the face of injustice and oppression. That is we become incapable or unwilling to think for ourselves, and to understand the world from the point of view of the other-particularly if we have been primed to see the ‘other’ as either socially, racially, culturally or economically less than us. When this happens on a mass collective scale, Arendt tells us that this thoughtlessness shields society and individuals taking cover within society, against the reality and factuality of the violence happening all around it.
When Arendt first saw Eichmann in 1961 in the Jerusalem court set up to try him of his crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust, what struck her most of all about him was his mundane banality, his provincial mediocrity, his obedience to authority in pursuit of career prospects, and his intellectual incoherence – his ‘banal’ ordinariness. Eichmann was, Arendt wrote, an ordinary Geheimnisträger – a ‘bearer of secrets’, just as everyone who was connected with the Final Solution was. He wasn’t a ‘monster’ like Heydrich, the key architect of the Holocaust. Evil she said comes from a failure to think, to think ethically: to critically question all that we see around us with our eyes and minds wide open.
If this is the case, it would not be difficult to ‘politically’ microtarget particular groups of people with fundamentalist and ideological belief systems that have been primed by years of misinformation and blatant propaganda.
The centrepiece would be evidence-light ‘belief systems’ held by groups which by their very nature reject criticism of what they perceive as their in-group, whether that in-group is racial, ethnic or political or a complex mix of all three. Groups which employ rigid worldviews as a defence against modern societies’ social, cultural, political and economic ambiguity and complexity (and which defer to authority as respite from all of the above).
It wouldn’t be difficult for an authoritarian demagogue to manipulate such groups for political gain: history is replete with examples. Only this time it could be done more secretly, under the radar. To make this happen it is only necessary, as Umberto Eco said in his essay ‘Making an Enemy’, for demagogues to invent a plausible enemy, or two. And the enemy must always be different as Eco pointed, and the epitome of difference is the foreigner, or refugees, the ‘Other’.
Next step, reduce all complex problems to media sound bites, clichés, dogmas and stereotypes; and propagate simple, one-dimensional solutions to all problems. Just as important, eliminate ambiguity in all political and social affairs. And here we see where the logic takes us. There must only be one overarching explanation for everything – all criticism must emanate from incompatible ideology and is by definition bad. For this, witness the current war on climate science. The wilful disregard for facts and evidence is acute precisely because its ‘ideology’- fact and truth – is so central to human progress that they pose real challenges to what the logic suggests. One belief system imposed by the state. Fascism.
The mass marketing of individualised political microtargeting has the very real potential to subvert the democratic will. We have not reached post-fact or post -democracy yet. But we are glimpsing what it could be like. Political microtargeting is dangerous.
Mark Kernan LLM, BSc Lecturer Adult Education (UCC) and Cork ETB.