One of the chilling aspects of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook relationship is how they used sophisticated psychological profiles based on personal data to market and influence individuals during the presidential election. While the level of detail and manipulation of personal data is shocking this methodology is not new. Advertisers and groups seeking wide societal influence in modern times have used targeted profiling and data to focus their efforts and gain influence since the 1950’s.
Reading this passage, written in 1999, in Varda Burstyn’s Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport about how advertising and spectacle sports became more deeply intertwined reminded me of the issues at the heart of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica story:
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, advertising relied on demographic measurement to help design effective campaigns. In the early 1970s, the industry took a major step forward in enhancing the power of their appeals by introducing a technique called ‘psychodemographics.’ A product of the impact of psychology and neurology on the advertising industry, psychodemographics could evaluate the effects of a given visual-auditory messages on the feelings and behaviors of demographically grouped viewers, and then aid in producing tailor-made advertisements to stimulate particular responses.
Burstyn goes on to quote Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987, 74):
According to the new model of communications that emerged the human receiver is by no means an empty vessel waiting to be filled with a potent message. Rather, the human receiver is a bundle of needs (many of them unconscious or below the threshold of awareness) and a compendium of emotional experiences (many of which are common to all of us as members of this society)…the receiver is a highly involved participant in the communication. The goal is to shape the message so that it matches the unconscious needs, emotional experience, and coded expectations of the desired audience – so that it speaks to, or resonates with, their deepest feelings and beliefs. This isn’t putting something into the receivers, it’s drawing something out of them and attaching it, or labeling that emotion with the product being advertised.
Watchers of Mad Men, the series about the advertising business in 1960’s New York, may recognize some of these ideas in the market research scenes.
When Facebook added Reactions to the Like button in February 2016 users now had the ability to literally label items with six different emotions, deepening their psychoprofiles along with any personality quizzes they may have participated in. Some anticipated that this feature had a purpose beyond broadening user expression which eventually came to light as Cambridge Analytica utilized that data to influence people in ways that Nelson describes in ways that one could refer to as mind control. Some of my colleagues at Bethel in Political Science, Computer Science, and Neuroscience discuss this in a podcast last May called Social Media and Mind Control.
Keeping in mind what is new about this situation and what is a progression of an established practice help to frame our responses. For instance, the Congressional hearings about this with Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, may have gone better if the Senators were more informed about this advertising practice and what is unique about Facebook’s technology and data practices.