Bill Jamieson: Voter manipulation is an age-old art

Information Commissioner's Office enforcement officers working in the premises of Cambridge Analytica in central London after a High Court judge granted a search warrant. (Picture: PA)
Information Commissioner's Office enforcement officers working in the premises of Cambridge Analytica in central London after a High Court judge granted a search warrant. (Picture: PA)
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Impact of ‘psychographics’ and social media on democracy has probably been over-hyped, writes Bill Jamieson.

Is democracy in danger? It certainly looks so. News headlines and TV current affairs programmes have been dominated by charges of personal data abuse. Claims are rife that the internet and social media are being manipulated to target voters, stoke fears, divide the country, twist election outcomes and manipulate emotion over arguing the facts.

What might have been dismissed as losers’ sour grapes has morphed into something more far-reaching and serious. The immediate charges are now the subject of parliamentary scrutiny, regulatory enquiry and appeals to the courts.

But the questions raised reach wider. Has our electoral system kept up with the challenges posed by the explosion of digital media and the ability through data mining to tag and target millions of unsuspecting voters? What is fair and unfair influence in a democratic system? Is there any system free from covert – and not so covert – profile targeting?

These concerns are by no means limited to recent elections in America and the UK. “In many parts of the world”, charge academic authors Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas in their book, How to Rig an Election, out next month, “election rigging is now not the exception but the norm … Around the world, democracy is being hijacked. And unless the Western democracies start to care, election quality will continue to decline. The facade of democracy is being turned into a tool of oppression because an increasing number of leaders have worked out how to rig an election — or hire someone to do it for them.

“This threatens to undermine the very idea of democracy, turning these elections into an empty ritual that the government always wins. The Cambridge Analytica revelations are the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t about one company or a handful of elections, it is about a concerted attack on democracy by a powerful alliance of authoritarian leaders and multinational companies. It has gone unnoticed and unanswered for too long.”

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Immediate concern has centred on Cambridge Analytica and the use of ‘psychographics’ – targeting users with messages associated with their personality type. Personality tests posted on Facebook invite people to respond. By cross-referencing people’s responses against their Facebook Likes, the researchers have sought to create algorithms that can determine intimate details of millions of other users who hadn’t taken the survey.

Michal Kosinski, one of the pioneers of this approach, co-published a study in 2013 showing how easily accessible digital records of behaviour can be used to predict sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender. It’s easy to see how this emotion-driven targeting can appear sinister and manipulative. For example, a survey respondent who scored highly on ‘neuroticism’ would receive a message emphasising dangers.

But is this a new phenomenon in the world of voter influence, or no more than an extension into the digital era of emotional manipulation evident throughout the history of democratic systems? What election campaign in history has not played to our emotions – our feelings of insecurity, pride, ambition, envy, fear and greed? In our national story, jingoistic campaigns have incited us to support war and aggression; have played on our fears of immigration; have encouraged us to raise taxes on the rich and help the poor; have fed our atavistic desires for economic advancement and stirred feelings of pride and nationalism.

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The charge is that the UK referendum and the US presidential election were skewered by data abuse and insidious influence. Our emotional buttons are being pushed by carefully targeted messages. But for decades UK party political campaigners and strategists have played on our emotions like artful violinists, launching themselves on trips to the US to study how the richly funded and sophisticated Democrat and Republican campaigns targeted and motivated voters.

There is not an election broadcast by a major political party now that is not thoroughly researched and targeted to release a compelling message – for example in the 2016 election, a heart-rending depiction of homelessness from Labour while, targeted at different voters, an upbeat broadcast from the Cameron-led Conservatives featuring ‘give-aways’ in terms of free childcare, NHS investment, education and pensions while also making reference to some tax cuts.

As Laura Perrins noted on the Conservative Woman website this week, “the fact is that political parties and their machines have been using emotion over fact for a very long time now. When you hear the next media frenzy that big data and social media are stoking fears, dividing the nation and manipulating emotion over arguing the facts, remember that elections have always been run on this basis”.

There is certainly much to be done to bring election regulation up to speed with the digital age. But the elimination of ‘undue’ or emotional influence targeted at certain voter types – that is, I would argue, deeply woven into democratic systems – is impossible to achieve. All elections involve targeted persuasion of one sort or another, and information is used or abused by democrats and dictators alike.

There is no such thing as a totally sterilised democracy.

How effective this sophisticated targeting has been in influencing voters has long been a matter of contention. And the debate over electronic or digital targeting is even more so. How do we know that ‘clicks’ on digital advertising result in swayed votes? For decades claims have been made by public relations firms and political consultants that their campaigns swayed the vote or turned the election. But how can such self-serving claims be proven?

Concludes Jamie Bartlett, author of The People Vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and how to save it), due out on April 19, “It’s almost impossible to ever know what precisely made a difference when it comes to campaigning and advertising … The importance of psychographics as a technique is probably overhyped. But don’t let the focus on this dubious method obscure bigger challenges recent events highlight: of micro-targeting, data use and our outdated analogue election law.” Hmmm. Good luck with that.