Behavioral Targeting is Getting Scary

This fascinating article about how an “election management firm” — under contract with the GOP — mined social network data and used it to bombard impressionable voters with content designed to manipulate them is thought-provoking and troubling.

Go ahead, read it first, and then come back. Also, for balance, read this counterpoint from Bloomberg doubting the data’s effect on the election, and listen to this podcast from Michal Kosinski who is the Stanford researcher featured in the article. Kosinski is unsure what effect data mining and targeting had on the election, but has plenty of fascinating things to say.

It’s always eye-opening to me when I ask Trump voters why they voted the way they did. Some of these people are friends and others are taxi drivers or other people I’ve met randomly. Their responses usually start out with something negative like “I could never vote for Hillary”. Then, when you probe just one level deeper and ask why, they will say something like “she had that investigator murdered”. Then you ask why they believe that to be true, and it usually ends up with some form of “it’s all over Facebook” or “there’s a whole video explaining it”. Granted, my sample size is small and doesn’t represent all the reasons someone might vote Trump, but I always leave these conversations thinking to myself “how could someone actually believe that?” Turns out, they may believe it because it’s been hammered into their news feed, repeatedly, by a company who may know them even better than they know themselves. (The research in that link is amazing, by the way: by analyzing only 10 Likes on Facebook, computer models can predict your personality better than your work colleagues, and by analyzing about 300, better than your spouse.)

We’ve known that fake news and political propaganda have been a problem on social media for awhile, but until reading about how psychometric targeting actually works, I viewed the phenomenon more as opportunistic chaos than anything else. Now it feels a lot more like a large-scale data-driven campaign to manipulate voters.

On the one hand, you can look at these methods and say they are no different than the targeting we do when we sell products to people. But on the other hand, there is a difference between selling someone a toaster they don’t need, and actively poisoning someone’s ability to tell truth from fiction.

Technology like this, as well all the other forms of hyperpersonalized targeting, really make you question your participation in platforms that collect and expose your data. It’s no longer just a question of “will that Amazon ad keep following me around the web until I buy the shoes?”. Now you legitimately have to worry about your own government, and private parties wanting to be your next government, trying to target you based on your vulnerabilities. Your social data is the tracking cookie, and your vote is the conversion.

I vividly remember when I first saw Take This Lollipop. It was an amazingly powerful demonstration of the harm one person could theoretically do to one other person using basic Facebook data as fuel. I think with the 2016 election though, we just witnessed the social data bomb explode at world-scale. Perhaps even more troublingly, this form of weaponized data science is just getting started.

I think it’s too easy to let the tools and networks we build off the hook by claiming they are just reflections of what we, as humans, already want. If they encourage us to self-segregate in ways that not only create perspective-shrinking echo chambers but now expose us to political targeting by outside agents, it’s hard to see how that is something people actually want, or something that is good for society.

It is now more important than ever to ask ourselves not only what good the technologies we are building (and using) can cause in the world, but also what bad they may already be causing, either by accident or on purpose. The goals of any technology — however noble — are never as important as the effects.

(This post also available on Medium.)

2 comments on “Behavioral Targeting is Getting Scary”. Leave your own?
  1. Devon Shaw says:

    It’s become more visible, but in a certain sense we’ve always done this. When I was doing precinct analysis, we’d break down each area’s registered voters based on a variety of factors, and then create target zones for different types of direct mail and phone campaigns (both robocall and live persons). It broke down roughly as thus:

    1. Already on our side – send them donation/bundler/hobnob requests
    2. Potentially on our side – highlight the core issues they’re likely to agree with
    3. Fully independent – fluff pieces mostly biographical in nature to raise positives
    4. Unlikely to support our side – carpet bomb repeatedly with hard negative ads

    Everyone does this for the most part because it works – you want to raise turnout in precincts where you have a good chance of winning, and depress turnout as aggressively as possible in areas where you don’t, to disillusion people into not wanting to go to the polls. This is all stuff that happens at a very local and specific level, done almost entirely through social engineering of purchased and previously-acquired campaign/voter lists, and utterly invisible from your typical online effort.

    What you’re seeing online is just a more refined and targeted version of this. People have always believed irrational things, and it usually comes down to which side repeats those things as often as possible in the mediums they pay attention to. If you have a rich candidate blanketing your area with attack ads and multiple waves of direct mail, it won’t be long before you start to question your own convictions about the person you thought you were voting for. Money talks, and so does the perceived wave of public opinion. Facebook stuffs all this into a bottle and creates a looping echo chamber, irrespective of whether the news is real or fake, or what viewpoints are even being considered.

    Appealing to someone’s good and rational side is, unfortunately, an inferior and unreliable method of persuasion. If you want people to turn out in droves for the causes you want them to support, scare the fucking shit out of them. Why do you think the current donation drives for the ACLU are so successful right now? They weren’t doing anything less important a year ago when it was Obama conducting drone bombings and throwing people in prison without due process. It’s just that now, with Trump, more people feel overtly threatened. Perception is everything.

  2. Mike D. says:

    Devon: Great points! I think where this gets especially pernicious though is that a political mailer at least looks like a political mailer whereas an item on a Facebook newsfeed is virtually indistinguishable from “the news” or something posted organically. People tend to be a lot more influenced by word-of-mouth than other methods of persuasion and pretty much everything on FB parades as word-of-mouth.

    I also worry that the more fine-grained the psychometric data is, the easier it will be for campaigns to pander to single-issue voters and even turn people *into* single-issue voters by hammering fear into an existing vulnerability they might have.

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