The use of hypertargeting methods and saving democracy

By Freddie Oufi

In many ways, the beginning of the Twenty-first century has seen a dramatic advance in technology not least by the emergence of a new form of communication and Information Technology. The growth of social media tech companies, Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. has been phenomenal. Their growing power to reach the billions online through their platforms has been nothing short of an astounding breakthrough in new capabilities. They morphed from agents for social interaction and search engines into independent outlets for news gathering and advertising sites and now into political powerhouses. They describe themselves not as media companies but insist on calling themselves purely as technology companies and sharing platforms. The cost of their free use means people have accepted their terms of service for their right to gather information about them. The intentions were to spread harmony and would prove a boon to Democracy. The general consensus was, connecting people and giving them a voice, social media had become a global force for plurality, Democracy and progress. The result has instead tended to breed identity politics, binary convictions, loyalty-tribalism, and an atmosphere ripe for political polarisation. In the long run, they would likely add up to undermine social cohesion and the civic society that is the bedrock of Democracy.

This essay will attempt to examine all these points and suggest ideas on how Democracy needs to catch up with the new digital technological age. It will make heavy use of accounts gained from the information technology of the 2016 American presidential race. It will focus mainly on how the pairing of that infrastructure work into the UK June 2016 referendum and the Brexit campaign. To examine the use of data Hypertargeting methods on the internet, such as data harvesting and psychometrics and their effect on voter orientation and conviction. That both at the time helped to promote and amplify the growing support for the Brexit campaign. So, what this essay will go on to describe are the working methods of algorithms during that campaign which are increasingly being used in election spheres in Europe.

The technological advance is at hyper speed with many marketing companies use of algorithms encouraging populist parties from the right and the left in Europe. By using methods for political stimulation verging on the unethical, energised high degree of civic engagement with social media encouraging direct democracy and upending Liberal Democracy as we know it in many parts of Europe. Especially so, in its greater magnitude by amplifying its dark side when it delivers information that’s inaccurate or biased and meant to sway the vote to their intended target. Pushed along by money and campaign finance has culminated in having a distorting effect on voter orientation. Hence, a particular political culture is developing dominated by advertising and fake outputs by anonymous sources, freely shared multiple times in the echo chambers, and conspiracy-fuelling sites; sometimes by highly efficient robots, has added up to the erosion of public trust across a wide range of political institutions in Europe.

There is nothing new in telling lies or telling half-truths in politics when canvassing for voter support but using the internet; modern technological algorithmic mathematical wizardry has taken both to a greater height, the likes of John Locke, Montesquieu or Hannah Arendt would never have imagined. Today’s technology emanating from Silicon Value in social media is winning the battle of the mind. Manipulating and dominating an unsuspecting public’s economic, social and political lives. In politics, where the process of elections based on freedom of choice, fairness, moral judgment and trust within a shared identity and compromise, meant Democracy is failing them all. Mathematical geniuses, greater minds than Darwin, select people by inventing more and more robust algorithms from emails we write or what we share on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They know more about us than we know about ourselves acquiring powers over our habits desires and fears. They have turned our decision making into science to manipulate during elections coining the noun behaviourism. A term that argues all mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons are caused and controlled by external stimuli.

By knowing our age, interests, location, friends and much more of upward of two billion subscribers, Facebook generates tons of data. These numbers are crushed and analysed by powerful and intelligent algorithms, targeting individuals with filtered information. These filter Bubbles are successfully used in marketing and advertising and data harvesting. In politics, this could present a warped view deforming true facts; since the computer that generates these algorithms carry a particular bias of their creator. Based on psychometric, it personalises its delivery to guide the voting public’s emotions and influence their opinions, often not to their best interests. This continued surveillance also infringes on the right of privacy, and seeing that digital technology never forgets, people become inhibited from exercising their point of view. Such as it is, by reducing the faculty for self-thought and social judgment, subjugating their rational choice, goes against basic principles governing individuals and society. Psychometrics contravenes moral imperatives enshrined in the mechanism of democracy and touches on the unethical use of microtargeting as Cambridge Analytical found to their cost. For those who think they are immune from being caught up in the web, well, think again. So long as you write an email or have a mobile phone, you are therefore digital data. ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’. You will also undoubtedly, by regular social interaction, will receive the news; fake, bias or otherwise, from social encounters in a secondary format most likely first picked up from the internet.

Such political freedom that can change the status quo cannot be turned over to science. Because, what is happening, by outsourcing our decision making, often by ‘share’ and ‘like’, for instance, we are expressing other people’s point of view, we avoid challenges which incidentally, are what our self-worth requires. That adds further fuel to these invisible engines. So, instead, for the sake of speed, we unwittingly chose ease over slow critical reasoning, so we are left with automatic reactions blasting intuitive ill-considered bursts of resentment or anger, mirroring the headlines we happened to notice earlier.

Decision-making is the highest form of cognitive perceptive, superior and autonomous authority in Homo Sapiens. However, for our purposes, we draw a fine line, indistinguishable, between freedom and freedom of choice. We chose to do away with the freedom of will; we let ourselves, inadvertently, guided by mathematics set in the background working on our behavioural, cognitive motives. Eventually, we lose a sense of what is right and what is wrong. “The equal distribution of “junk” or “fake news” and “professional” news where every voter equally exposed to election-related news through Twitter or Facebook could be misleading. Also, avoiding competing but accurate information in preference to “Fake News” would result in crowding out beneficial and useful information. The latest in Fake News is Deep-Fake videos. Deep-fake videos made by the use of algorithms that take existing images and footage to doctor videos. Some experts worry that deep fakes could heighten disinformation and spark violence, war, or genocide. Especially dangerous for women used in pornographic material.

The unethical aim for such binary selective Persuasion is divisive and diminishes ideas of compromise, the cornerstone of liberal Democracy. In Hungary and Poland, for instance, without constraints, this aggravation has led to a perversion of Democracy where winner-takes-all. Since we accept the general rule that voting for a Democratic state, we often don’t get what we want exactly, we still have freedom of choice. But with microtargeting, however, we are increasingly influenced by the data bearing on us, we unperceptively volunteer informative data, shaping models of our orientations and personalising destructive contents to come our way. By these convincing gravitational pulls imposed by isolated information, we form group alliances to trend toward extremes and identity politics, outranking reason and progressively opt to resolve differences by coercion rather than conciliation.

Even such tribalism is not new, we have always had a tendency wanting to belong to a group, and many cultures thrive on tribal loyalties. Human history littered with chapters of civil wars, many of which start from clustering or mob rule but the rationality of democracy finally caged all. The internet mathematical drive has let tribalism out of the cage where tailor-made information is relayed at the individual level; most comes as misinformation. That has the damaging effect of magnifying the differences widening the gap between opposing views. Thus, the hypertargeting methods used to create inequities when accessing information essential for voting decisions. Many tend to rely on ‘confirmation-bias’, and read what suits their moods to feel comfortable in bubbles of like-minded individuals that can easily lead to one kind blind and emotional tribalism, so with this isolationist persuasion, they start to build walls around their ideologies.

Mass persuasion has a vital role in establishing and maintaining the right to govern and to maintain political stability, to form a fair and just society. In a democracy, where legitimacy comes from the bottom and honesty is not the compelling logic, and when the intent is political, the use of psychometrics runs against its guiding principles. Persuasion on social media is a zero-sum game, and part of a persuader’s mission is to succeed in presenting information in a way that blocks out competing, contradictive information. Playing on fear, emotions, security and cultural destabilising are the ingredients for popular divisive politics leading to extremes, forefronting populist personalities who can dangerously give way to authoritarianism that can unearth the foundations of Democracy – “the synthesis of political freedom and political equality”*

Youth hostilities are growing on the back of mistrust in politicians fuelling Populism, gaining the momentum over the decline of mainstream parties. With information overload and a flood of competing for facts, the youth are ever more politicised and want more of a say in the running of government. The youth today are angry and resentful of scandals in government and the way government institutions wasting their tax money on, say; immigration, foreign aid, education and welfare; all incidentally contested on the social media. Faced with continued austerity in most of Europe, they feel fearful and insecure while daily bombarded of the widening gap in income parities. The desire for direct Democracy and the increased use of Referendum has never been greater.

The need to breathe new life into Democracy is essential; it is high time to revive a system made in the eighteenth century for it to meet today’s digital challenges. Seeing technology, as a catalyst of social change, that is advancing at breakneck speed, it needs to catch up if it was to survive. According to AmnestyInternational,” in the next 10–20 years, emerging technologies will fundamentally change societies; it will be nothing short of revolutionary.”

However, it must be acknowledged; Democracy has served the western the world well since the end of Second World War but recently has been losing ground to Populists, who promise easy solutions to complicated questions, and the growing authoritarianism around the world. The government must adjust and regulate the flow of information from the internet, to arrest the ever increasing anti-compromise culture, and to contain the political power of social media. Introducing Ethical Data laws in the UK, and ethical parameters around social media giants, to hold them responsible for scrutinising and authenticating the sources of information put out on their sites. To treat them less of “Platforms”, and more as “publishers”, like print and television media. While some in Europe have acknowledged those social media companies are too big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy, the European Commission has recently imposed penalties on Google, and both Germany and France, sounded warning on Facebook for using psychometrics, but clearly, those measures nor the acknowledging of problems are not enough. It is worthwhile mentioning that in German, 90% of 14-year-olds to 29-year-olds registered on at least one social media platform.

The good news though is the introduction in Europe is the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which introduced new rules for disclosure of information, and the rights of subscribers. One regulation would force companies to spell out “why the data is being collected, and whether it will be used to create profiles of people’s actions and habits.”

To encourage FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter, to police their sites, and if the law is required, to force them on more transparency, earlier and easier exposure of hackers. To sift out anonymous ‘fake news’ sources, an ensure equality spread of information to its subscribers. They should be accountable for the misleading statements, and the spreading of malicious lies and misinformation focused on exploiting our psychological weakness by using psychometric methods in the sphere of public discourse and democratic processes. I agree this is all easier said than done, but tackling the spreading of fake news is proving the most difficult problem to control for both governments and social media.

Saving Democracy would also have to be a partnership. European governments, when imposing such measures, need to be wary of infringing free speech and pay particular attention to internet freedom, to regain the trust of its citizens. The people would have to adjust how they use the internet to revert from outsourcing for decisions and claim back their freedom of mind. Our young need schooling how to discriminate between information to acquire habits of judging their merits while exercising greater importance to critical thinking. Above all, the European Commission and individual European governments need to improve their working environment, to become more exciting, to attract young talent, to compete with Google and Facebook. The idea is for the governments to use technology on par with its competitors spreading factual information equally and shape them in the public interest. Governments are the bastion of Liberal Democracy, by taking these measures, people can look to the unfettered right of way to political freedom.

*What is a democracy? A reconceptualization of the quality of democracy, Gerardo L. Munck, School of International Relations, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA.

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