C17: Day 130 – How do we combat mass manipulation?

by Suw on May 10, 2017

I started trying to read The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked by Carole Cadwalladr on the plane yesterday, but had to give up because it was too depressing. Political campaigns, says Cadwalladr, are paying vast sums of money to a company called Cambridge Analytica to do psychological profiling of voters in the UK and US with the hope of using that information to influence the EU referendum and presidential election.

Privacy International is ever so slightly less depressing on the same topic. Well, I say ‘less depressing’, but not really:

Using profiling to micro-target, manipulate, and persuade individuals is still dangerous and a threat to democracy. The entire point of building intimate profiles of individuals, including their interests, personalities, and emotions, is to change the way that people behave. This is the definition of marketing—political or commercial. When companies know that you are depressed or feeling lonely to sell you products you otherwise wouldn’t want, political campaigns and lobbyists around the world can do the same: target the vulnerable, and manipulate the masses.

I don’t know, and I suspect that it’s impossible to know, just how much Cambridge Analytica really did influence people’s votes. It’s not as if there weren’t other puppetmasters trying to pull the strings, after all.

The reason I find this stuff so soul-destroying is that it implies that we, as individuals, have no agency, that we are not able to protect ourselves from being manipulated by cynical, self-interested and possibly even evil forces. How do we even begin to fight back against a company like Cambridge Analytica, with its terrifying combination of incredibly deep pockets and a total lack of morals?

I don’t think it’s true that we have no agency, just that we’ve been happy to allow ourselves to be persuaded that that is so. We can fight back, we can do what humans are naturally very good at: talk to people, create relationships, and create trust. Forging relationships between progressive politicians and their constituents – ALL of them, not just the mouthy ones or the really engaged ones – is the only way for us to combat this sort of stuff. Because personal relationships can’t be easily destroyed by propaganda of the sort that Trump and Leave pumped out.

We’ve had Obama’s playbook for nearly a decade, and yet the only other politician to have done much with it has been Emmanuel Macron (my bold):

His first major undertaking was the Grande Marche (Big March), when he mobilised his growing ranks of energised but inexperienced En Marche activists.

“The campaign used algorithms from a political firm they worked with – who by the way had volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 – to identify districts and neighbourhoods that were most representative of France as a whole,” Ms Schultheis says.

“They sent out people to knock on 300,000 doors.”

The volunteers didn’t just hand out flyers – they carried out 25,000 in-depth interviews of about 15 minutes with voters across the country. That information was entered into a large database which helped inform campaign priorities and policies.

“It was a massive focus group for Macron in gauging the temperature of the country but also made sure that people had contact with his movement early on, making sure that volunteers knew how to go door to door. It was a training exercise that really laid the groundwork for what he did this year,” Ms Schultheis explains.

The key thing here is that taking 15 minutes to listen to voters is the very basics of the idea of consultative democracy that I was talking about the other day. Actually spending the time to listen to people not only gets you information, it gives them the sense that someone is taking them seriously, someone cares about them and their experiences and opinions.

That is what the left needs to do, in the UK and the US. Listen to people, forge relationship with them, give them the sense that someone cares about them, and that we can and will help them solve the problems they face. And then, y’know, actually solve those problems as best we can. That’s the only surefire way to combat the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

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