Cambridge Analytica has blurred the line between persuasion and manipulation

The company identified the psychographics of individuals to create deliberately provocative messaging

Originally published by CBC

Cambridge Analytica is the latest strategic communication firm to follow the likes of Bell Pottinger in scandal-induced destruction. While Bell Pottinger’s downfall was over its secret campaign stoking racial tensions in South Africa, Cambridge Analytica is in trouble over revelations it used data from 50 million Facebook users to create highly targeted and manipulative messaging in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

There appears to be less public tolerance for underhanded tactics in public relations in this digital age, with growing demands for transparency and ethical behaviour from individuals and companies alike. That makes using communications with the purpose of influencing an audience a bit tricky.

Where is the line between acceptable persuasion of a target audience and unreasonable manipulation? Can one even be drawn? This is a question that liberal democratic societies must answer quickly, particularly with increasing calls to do something to counter foreign propaganda.

Behavioural advertising

There are many reasons to be alarmed by the Cambridge Analytica disclosure, chief among them privacy concerns about how they got the data (although many have pointed to Facebook’s lax rules as a culprit), which they then used to support the Trump campaign. But looking past the size of the dataset and boastful promises about what Cambridge Analytica tactics could deliver, the service it seemed to be offering looks a lot like behavioural advertising.

The internet has enabled a targeted form of marketing whereby advertisers collect and use data about consumers to create personalized messaging —  that’s behavioural advertising, in a nutshell. The information collected by advertisers can include the websites you visit, the online searches you make, the things you like on Facebook and much more. With this data, a savvy advertiser can craft a message that resonates with your current needs and state of mind, and put those messages where you are most likely to see them online.

Website trackers, among other things, help aggregate data across a user’s internet experience. The websites you visit can leave behind small bits of data called “cookies” that then enable tracking of your online experience thereafter.

According to one study, nearly 75 per cent of the world’s most popular websites are tracking you. In visiting 114 websites related to the 2016 U.S. election, for example, Columbia University researcher Jonathan Albright indirectly connected with 474 third parties, which could then also track his data going forward.

Many of these websites also contain persistent popup windows encouraging visitors to subscribe to mailing lists. This is an important, if often overlooked, technique for creating advertising funnels, particularly since Facebook allows marketers to upload email lists that are then matched to the network’s users, enabling further targeting.

Cambridge Analytica isn’t alone in plying behavioural advertising, and it certainly isn’t the biggest operation. The U.S.-based firm Zeta Global, for example, launches more than two billion cookies per month, which, according to CEO David Steinberg, can be attached to 600 million people active in its database — people who have opted in through various partnerships. “We’re able to take a cookie and match it to a person and look at actual behaviors,” he told Forbes.

These cookies can be launched through partner websites, but Zeta Global also acquires them in other ways; take, the estimated 1.5 billion it gained in purchasing the social media discussion platform Disqus late last year. As of 2017, Zeta Global’s database had an average of 3,000 pieces of data per person.

In Canada, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act requires that those collecting personal data obtain consent and inform the consumer why that information is being collected. But given that more than 90 per cent of users don’t read terms of service, the effectiveness of that layer of protection is questionable. And even of those who do, 61 per cent, according to one survey, were still unaware of Facebook’s right to share their information with third parties.

Knowing what people might want and where to reach them has its limits though, which is why Cambridge Analytica took things further, identifying the so-called psychographics of individuals to create persuasive and deliberately provocative messaging.

Through online tracking and the research of another field — behavioural economics — advertisers can tweak the psychological, cognitive and emotional factors that affect decision-making. In fact, one algorithm created by Cambridge University researchers (not affiliated with Cambridge Analytica) purports to be able to know a person better than his or her own family by analyzing just 150 Facebook likes.

Persuasion vs. manipulation

But is using emotions or cognitive bias to affect decision-making merely persuasion, or manipulation? Does the distinction matter? Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Chris Wylie, seems to think so.

For some, the difference between persuasion and manipulation lies in outcome. A person is manipulated if he or she feels shortchanged, whereas persuasion suggests a mutually beneficial resolution. Who decides and determines this, though? And what if the target audience has no idea such efforts are taking place?

In the end, it might not even matter what it’s called; what will matter is how the efforts are perceived, and in turn, how that perception provokes new action. If the current backlash against Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are any indication, these coercive efforts — however they are labelled — won’t be tolerated the same way they have been in the past. People might even start reading the fine print.


Cover Image:  Booby trap / Syphilis and Gonorrhoea propaganda poster by U.S. Government, 1940

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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