The hope that I have long held onto, is that whatever the dystopian trends taking place today, that we have timeto stop them. This election season is making me question the possible naivete of this hope, for things are moving so fast, and the trends are so disturbing, that I am beginning to fear that by the time we even understand them enough to be motivated enough to change their trajectory, that they will already be a fait accompli.
This is nowhere more clear than the way two relatively recent trends: social media in business, and behavioral economics in academia, are being applied in the 2012 elections. These developments threaten to erode the very assumptions at the core of our democratic political system: the idea of the voter as an individual endowed with the ability for reasoned choice and argument and the capacity for morally informed judgement.Charles Duhigg’s article in this past Sunday’s New York Times is disturbing in its portrayal of how both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using the data mining capacity of social media and the findings of behavioral psychology to manipulate people into voting for them on November, 6. I’ll take data mining and social media to start.
In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.
The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com.”
You may wonder exactly where the Romney and Obama campaigns are getting such detailed personal information on voters. Quite simply, they are buying it from analytics companies that possess this kind of information on anyone with an internet connection. Which if you are reading this- means you.
I find this troubling on so many levels that exploring them all would fill multiple posts, so let me concentrate on just a few.To start with this seems to represent a qualitative change in political manipulation and institutionalized lying. One might bring up the point that elections have been about advertising since their was advertising and politicians have been lying since the ancient Greeks,
but it certainly seems that the practices detailed by Duhigg take this manipulation to a whole new level.
As I mentioned in my post What’s Wrong With Borgdom?
,the recent short piece of design fiction Sight
offers a disturbing picture of how access to our “sociogram” or “social map”, which comes as close as we ever have to actually peering inside someone’s head, might be used as a tool of manipulation and control. To quote from that post:
is a very short film that shows us the potential dark side of a world of ubiquitous augmented reality and social profiles- a world in many ways scarier that the Borg because it seems so possible. In this film, which I really encourage you to check out for yourself, a tech- savvy hotshot, seduces, and we are led to believe probably rapes, a young woman using a “dating app” that gives him access to almost everything about her.
gets to the root of the potential problem with social media which isn’t the ability to interconnect and communicate with others , which it undoubtedly provides, but the very real potential that it could also be used as a tool of manipulation and control.
is powerful because it shows this manipulation and control person to person, but on a more collective level manipulation and control is the actual objective of advertisement. It is the bread and butter of social media itself.”
Politicians and political advertisements have, of course, always told us what they thought we wanted to hear. But past political advertisers were in effect playing blind. They had to define their message broadly enough that it would ring true with a nondescript “average voter”. This was extremely wasteful and its wastefulness was a good thing. As long a person was able to hold true to their individuality and swim against the crowd they could could actually remain free in thought and opinion. By being able to peer under one’s skull the age of targeted advertising can use the specific qualities of the individual against himself.
This is a sophisticated form of lying in that the way political communication has been “framed” has nothing to do with the actual positions of the parties themselves, but on what they should tell you to garner your support. A Democratic operative might reason:”He’s a registered Democrat who faithfully attends church. We will not mention any contentious social issues on which he might differ from our party platform”. For a Republican operative: “She’s a registered Republican who visits Ron Paul websites and periodically looks at porn on the internet. We should focus on lower taxes and deregulation and avoid any mention of Christian-conservative themes common in the GOP”.
This is something like the kinds of focus groups we have been seeing on cable news shows for years now where the participants are hooked up to physiological monitors while they watch debates and other political fare- their every reaction minutely monitored by a machine. The difference being that we are now all hooked up to such a machine that we call the internet, and are being monitored -secretly- something almost none of us have actually volunteered to do.
Another thing I find highly disturbing about the use of data mining and social media by the two major parties is not how they are being used right now, but their potential to stifle competition to the Democrats and Republican from a third party. If used in this way data mining and social media will enter the already extensive tool kit: from irrational gerrymandering
to politically closed primaries, to media bias, that currently preserves the two party duopoly.Duhigg doesn’t really explore this point in his article, but theoretically it should be possible for the social maps used by the Democrats and Republicans to pick-off independents by identifying them based on the websites they visit or the books they browse on Amazon, perhaps even search for at their local library. If we don’t have psychological studies to figure out exactly what you should tell a Ron Paul supporter or a disaffected progressive to come over to “your side” messages that are then targeted at such groups in this election cycle, we will in the next.If all that weren’t creepy enough, the two parties are also taking advantage of their knowledge of our social networks to convince us to vote in their favor. Again quoting Duhigg:
When one union volunteer in Ohio recently visited the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s election Web site, for instance, she was asked to log on with her Facebook profile. Computers quickly crawled through her list of friends, compared it to voter data files and suggested a work colleague to contact in Columbus. She had never spoken to the suggested person about politics, and he told her that he did not usually vote because he did not see the point.”We talked about how if you don’t vote, you’re letting other people make choices for you,” said the union volunteer, Nicole Rigano, a grocery store employee. “He said he had never thought about it like that, and he’s going to vote this year. It made a big difference to know ahead of time what we have in common. It’s natural to trust someone when you already have a connection to them.”
I have no idea how the conversation between these two people began, but I’d put my hard earned money on the fact that it didn’t start honestly, which would have went something like this: “Based on psychological studies it has been shown that people are more likely to trust someone they know than someone they do not. A computer algorithm operated by the Obama campaign identified the fact that I was a voting Obama supporter and union member and that you were a non-voting union member, and deemed that if I spoke with you I might be able to convince you to vote for Obama”.
A very narrow band of partisan ideologues are out to define what the future of the country should look like, and that leads into my next topic: the novel use of techniques perfected in the field behavioral economics in the current election.
Duhigg doesn’t use the term behavioral economics, but I’m pretty sure it’s at the root of many of the techniques being used by the Romney and Obama campaigns. Behavioral economics is essentially the study of how to get people to do stuff. The book that brought the field to popularity a couple years back was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Suestein. The basic premise behind Nudge
was that people do irrational things that aren’t really amenable to change through personal insight, but that could be shaped to be more rational by policy makers aware of how the flawed human mind actually works. People can be influenced to make certain decisions over others by the smallest of changes, such as the decision to eat a salad or Friendly’s Grilled Cheese Burger Melt
can be influenced unconsciously by things such as menu design or food placement.
I remember reading Nudge and being frankly annoyed not just by the paternalism of the whole thing, but by the fact that it seemed to be promoting a type of paternalism laced with subterfuge where the person being “nudged” towards change had no idea what was going on. I also had the response of “who will parent the paternalist?” after all, except for a very narrowly defined set of issues regarding individual health, most questions in society are about values and trade-offs, and really can’t or shouldn’t be decided by policy makers beforehand.
There are also the questions of untestable assumptions and bias that inflict “experts”whatever their intentions. A lot of Nudge is devoted to getting Americans to sock more away in their 401ks. It was published before the financial crisis and I was reading it after the fact, and it seemed clear to me that if these “rational” experts had, using their behavioral techniques, managed to get us irrational folk to pour more savings into the stock market- those who did so would have lost their shirt. Techniques identified by Duhigg that probably have their roots in behavioral economics include:
The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective. Another tactic that will be used this year, political operatives say, is asking voters whether they plan to walk or drive to the polls, what time of day they will vote and what they plan to do afterward.
The answers themselves are unimportant. Rather, simply forcing voters to think through the logistics of voting has been shown, in multiple experiments, to increase the odds that someone will actually cast a ballot.
Duhigg quotes one operative as saying:
“Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s political director. “We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”
Web 2.0 could have resulted in a re-invigoration of democracy by facilitating the exchange of views between regular citizens and increasing their capacity to politically organize. Instead, it has resulted in an unprecedented ability for a narrow group of ideological partisans pursuing their own self-interest to control the society underneath them.
Rather than a high-tech version of Athenian democracy we have the beginnings of an electronic panopticon watching over, and attempting to subtly, and secretly, control us all.
Do you need to be talked off the ledge?
I share your concerns but the road to Borgdom still has a ways to go. However, the situation is much like that of the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot on the stove that doesn’t jump out and get cooked (which I have read is not actually the way an real frog would react). I don’t know when or if there will be a transition and we will not be able to turn back. There may no clear boundary or it will be a boundary we only understand after we are well past it. At any rate, I don’t think we are past it now.
Manipulation of voter groups is not new and may only be marginally worse than it was 50 or 100 years ago, although there are certainly some new tools for the parties to work with. Both political parties have a vested interest in maintaining their positions by throwing up entrance barriers to third parties and then co-opting their issues. Opponents of the Patriot Act elected a President who mostly has continued and extended it. Tea Party conservatives will discover if Romney gets elected that government will grow bigger than ever after some token cuts are made. Our winner take all system means inevitably one of the well-heeled parties, which on the core issues represent mostly the same interests, will win.
I was just wondering where you had been. Any posts on your end lately?
No, I don’t need to be talked off the ledge, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have that far to fall.
My language is indeed somewhat hyperbolic, but I am trying to get the frog to leap out of the water, to steal your metaphor.
I think we have been far too blasie about the culture of “sharing” and the outlines of how this might bite us in the ass have become more clear. I might think I’d gone off the deep end, but these concerns have been brought up by the NY Times and now the Financial Times:
a deep end I don’t mind being in.
I don’t think political operatives knowing what books you read, magazines and newspapers you subscribe to, churches you attend or don’t attend, or virtual “friends” you have and using that information to spin their “product” is something we should accept past this farcical election cycle, and the more attention brought to these discomforting practices the better.
Actually I do have a new post. It is about what I promised months ago – a discussion of the phenomenon of consciousness. I’m still not sure I have everything completely as I would like it but it an expansion of some of the issues and topics we have discussed.
Great post again. It seems that there are at least two things we can identify here, and accordingly, two directions from which I can see your (and my) position being attacked accordingly. One is the point raised by James Cross (hello!) which is that this is an example of the same political manipulation of information as we have always had. You yourself explicitly mentioned gerrymandering (two centuries old this year!). The other line of attack is that we are making the alleged mistake of attributing some moral agency to what is a neutral technology. The numbers don’t lie, etc.
I think that both of these can be answered in the same breath, by noting that this world of data brought to bear on the democratic political process is quantitatively different to such an extent that we have a difference in quality. It is not just the same old way of attempting to secure political advantage at the ballot-box. This is not just the next stage on from phone banks manned by volunteers. I think there is also something to be said about the neutrality of data and technology in the sense that we must always try to ask what are the ideas are which inform the structuring of these data and technologies/techniques.
Happy birthday gerrymandering!
Seriously, I think you are absolutely right Andrew, but I would add a few editions: The thing I find particularly disturbing about recent developments is not so much that this information exists in the aggregate, as the degree to which it is targeted. It’s not that some political operative hoping to win my vote knows that people “like me” read such and such a book it’s that they know I READ it, or at least bought the book for someone I know. The information asymmetry is almost total with me on the low end of that scale.
I think this idea of information asymmetry is perhaps one of the most important, and something being accelerated not just by BIG DATA, but by developments in both technology and social science.
As an example, I’ll give an AI technology used to assist customer service workers. Essentially, the AI uses word choice and intonation to filter people into types, based upon which are select phrases which the customer service worker can use to manage the call.
How is this different from a customer service worker that is just good at their job? It is because they “know” me in a way I can not know them in so far as they stick to script. The information asymmetry is totally in their favor.
I have no knowledge of political campaigns using this technology in the current election cycle, but if it works they certainly will.
It’s not the technology itself that I see as the problem
I can imagine such a technology used to facilitate communication- as long as all parties had access to it. Rather, it is the rational that these technologies should be used as tools of manipulation, primarily on account of the asymmetries of information they allow.
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