Saturday, July 6, 2024

"How Data-Fueled Neurotargeting Could Kill Democracy"

From MIT's Press Reader:

Left unchecked, the technique, which weaponizes emotional data for political gain, could erode the foundations of a fair and informed society.

One of the foundational concepts in modern democracies is what’s usually referred to as the marketplace of ideas, a term coined by political philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1859, though its roots stretch back at least another two centuries. The basic idea is simple: In a democratic society, everyone should share their ideas in the public sphere, and then, through reasoned debate, the people of a country may decide which ideas are best and how to put them into action, such as by passing new laws. This premise is a large part of the reason that constitutional democracies are built around freedom of speech and a free press — principles enshrined, for instance, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Like so many other political ideals, the marketplace of ideas has been more challenging in practice than in theory. For one thing, there has never been a public sphere that was actually representative of its general populace. Enfranchisement for women and racial minorities in the United States took centuries to codify, and these citizens are still disproportionately excluded from participating in elections by a variety of political mechanisms. Media ownership and employment also skews disproportionately male and white, meaning that the voices of women and people of color are less likely to be heard. And, even for people who overcome the many obstacles to entering the public sphere, that doesn’t guarantee equal participation; as a quick scroll through your social media feed may remind you, not all voices are valued equally.

Above and beyond the challenges of entrenched racism and sexism, the marketplace of ideas has another major problem: Most political speech isn’t exactly what you’d call reasoned debate. There’s nothing new about this observation; 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that logos (reasoned argumentation) is only one element of political rhetoric, matched in importance by ethos (trustworthiness) and pathos (emotional resonance). But in the 21st century, thanks to the secret life of data, pathos has become datafied, and therefore weaponized, at a hitherto unimaginable scale. And this doesn’t leave us much room for logos, spelling even more trouble for democracy.

An excellent — and alarming — example of the weaponization of emotional data is a relatively new technique called neurotargeting. You may have heard this term in connection with the firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), which briefly dominated headlines in 2018 after its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the UK’s Brexit vote came to light. To better understand neurotargeting and its ongoing threats to democracy, we spoke with one of the foremost experts on the subject: Emma Briant, a journalism professor at Monash University and a leading scholar of propaganda studies.

Modern neurotargeting techniques trace back to U.S. intelligence experiments examining brains exposed to both terrorist propaganda and American counterpropaganda.

Neurotargeting, in its simplest form, is the strategic use of large datasets to craft and deliver a message intended to sideline the recipient’s focus on logos and ethos and appeal directly to the pathos at their emotional core. Neurotargeting is prized by political campaigns, marketers, and others in the business of persuasion because they understand, from centuries of experience, that provoking strong emotional responses is one of the most reliable ways to get people to change their behavior. As Briant explained, modern neurotargeting techniques can be traced back to experiments undertaken by U.S. intelligence agencies in the early years of the 21st century that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to examine the brains of subjects as they watched both terrorist propaganda and American counterpropaganda. One of the commercial contractors working on these government experiments was Strategic Communication Laboratories, or the SCL Group, the parent company of CA.

A decade later, building on these insights, CA was the leader in a burgeoning field of political campaign consultancies that used neurotargeting to identify emotionally vulnerable voters in democracies around the globe and influence their political participation through specially crafted messaging. While the company was specifically aligned with right-wing political movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, it had a more mercenary approach elsewhere, selling its services to the highest bidder seeking to win an election. Its efforts to help Trump win the 2016 U.S. presidential election offer an illuminating glimpse into how this process worked....