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.