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You are the target!

Digitalisation is expanding the advertising industry’s ability to manipulate us. Micro-targeting is shaking the foundations of democracy.

You are the target!
Illustration von Stephan Schmitz.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

When World War II came to an end and the world was in ruins, “propaganda» didn’t cease – even though Hitler had founded his Reich on it. Edward Bernays› book on the subject had been one of Goebbels’ favorite reads. After the war, propaganda continued to be the basis of politics around the globe, repackaged as the anodyne phrase «public relations.» Obviously, advertising companies used similar psychological tricks as well.

Since then, the methods used have not become less harmful. On the contrary: Digitalization has led to widespread mass surveillance by states and companies. Now, methods reminiscent of spying are used to create profiles of unsuspecting Internet users, basically all of us. Some of them are so detailed that they are named «digital twins” of our individual selves. This allows messages to exactly address any audience and is called (micro-)targeting. You are the target!

«We know everything after two weeks»

The methods used for this are very similar to the digital weapons used by the military in information warfare.  As one industry expert put it: «By tracking your cookies, we know everything about you after two weeks!» And: «Within regulations, [it] is completely safe to manipulate the sh.. out of you.»

But this is not the only problem that democracies are struggling with in the digital age. The freedom to vote and the secrecy of the ballot are two democratic pillars. A third one is the principle of «one person, one vote.» All these pillars have been shaken, if not destroyed. Because these days, with Big Data, it is not difficult to guess which party you would vote for based on your surfing behavior on the Internet. This nullifies the secrecy of the ballot. It also damages the freedom to vote, as the manipulation of opinion can be used to change voting behavior against your own interests – at least to some extent. This has happened in more than 60 countries over many years, most notably since the scandals surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Team Jorge. However, these are not the only companies targeting voters. Accordingly, those who invest more money in digital election advertising or «opinion formation» can ultimately win more votes – i.e., they can «buy» them, so to speak – in contradiction to the third pillar of democracy.

Advertising companies, digital platforms, intelligence services and the military are all making extensive use of their opportunities to influence us digitally.  Every day, almost around the clock, we are at the mercy of competition designed to get our attention, illicit and manipulate our thoughts and feelings. This can certainly be seen as a global war fought to capture our minds. And so, we have «meme wars» instead of constructive debates. The results are a cacophony of fake news, a disinformation pandemic and a culture of debate poisoned by hate speech. Of course, the fair competition between ideas and a constructive, participatory search for solutions – which should be the basis of democracy – are something different.

In many countries, data protection laws require your name to be replaced by a pseudonym. Nevertheless, groups of all kinds, even vulnerable minorities, can be targeted precisely – even with hate speech. Nowadays, there are probably no democratically elected representatives or publicly visible scientists, writers and intellectuals, who don’t suffer harassment on social media or receive death threats. All in all, some people already wonder whether democracy may not have been damaged more by this than by the terrorism and organized crime we are familiar with.

Subtle manipulation

Although (since Churchill) democracy has often been jokingly called the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried, the original idea of basing a state on participation and collective intelligence was actually a good one. But the «wisdom of the crowd» only works if the search for information and solutions takes place without manipulation, so that the diversity of resulting solutions is high. Combining such solutions typically results in even better solutions that can often outperform those that only come from experts. On the other hand, if the range of solutions is narrowed down by manipulation, the result can morph into a «madness of crowds.» Indeed, some people already wonder whether the manipulation of minds has turned the world into a kind of global madhouse.

The manipulation of our thoughts and feelings is often very subtle. It cleverly sneaks around our conscious perception so that we don’t notice the manipulation. For this, our personal strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears are exploited in a merciless way. Truths and personal rights are typically ignored in this process. The only thing that seems to matter is the outcome: triggering us to feel, think, or act in certain ways. This can go so far that computer simulations are used to experiment with your digital twin to discover the best way to «hack» you.

However, it is not only our lives that can be damaged in this way, but democracy too. Given our manipulated world view, we are becoming disoriented, both individually and as a society. The noise of the attention economy makes it more difficult to recognize emerging problems early on, to distinguish big problems from small ones, to separate good solutions from bad ones, and to make the right investments. Is anyone surprised that this results in a multiplicity of crises which, crucially, we don’t have enough money to deal with?

Aarau does it better

Collective intelligence can actually be used to update democracy, even digitally. An experiment called «Stadtidee» – in which my research team at ETH Zurich collaborated with those of Prof. Regula Hängli (Fribourg) and Prof. Evangelos Pournaras (Leeds)1 – shows how.

Our experiment took place in the Swiss town called Aarau, which has about 22,000 inhabitants, and it involved refining a participatory budgeting process, to which CHF 50,000 was allocated. People from the city and its surrounding were invited to suggest ideas on how the city could be improved. The ideas were collected, discussed and refined in various brainstorming meetings. Eventually, the ideas evolved into projects in a participatory process and were checked for feasibility. In this way, the more than 100 initial ideas turned into 33 proposed projects, which were finally put to a vote.

The result: more transparency, more resource efficiency, more participation, more projects, more inclusion, more fairness, more trust and more satisfaction. How was this possible? The best voting method had previously been determined in a laboratory experiment.2  Instead of just selecting the preferred projects, it was possible to distribute points to them. This allowed people to support several projects, but also to make the relative preferences clear. And instead of votes being won by majority, the principle of proportional fairness was applied.

Rather than optimizing an average utility function, as a «benevolent dictator» would have done, this made it possible to satisfy diverse needs. Instead of just 7 projects, 17 projects were selected – primarily those that were characterized by a large number of votes in comparison to the project costs. Furthermore, instead of most of the money going to the city center, the projects were well distributed throughout the city, which entails greater spatial fairness.

In contrast to common optimization methods, several goals were achieved simultaneously. In a sense, one can call this «better than optimal», i.e. better than what can be achieved by conventional optimization. The voting pattern was also more representative. For example, more women, more younger and elderly people could be mobilized. Ultimately, a «Facebook democracy» does not seem to be the solution to our problems. Instead, it seems to be an improved participation and election process. We need «democracy by design,» platforms for genuine informational self-determination, for example. Can we still save democracy in this way, or even upgrade it? That should be the goal – not you!

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