Thursday, August 23, 2018

Neuropolitics: Computers See You In Ways You Can't See Yourself


TechnologyReview |  This spring there was a widespread outcry when American Facebook users found out that information they had posted on the social network—including their likes, interests, and political preferences—had been mined by the voter-targeting firm Cambridge Analytica. While it’s not clear how effective they were, the company’s algorithms may have helped fuel Donald Trump’s come-from-behind victory in 2016.

But to ambitious data scientists like Pocovi, who has worked with major political parties in Latin America in recent elections, Cambridge Analytica, which shut down in May, was behind the curve. Where it gauged people’s receptiveness to campaign messages by analyzing data they typed into Facebook, today’s “neuropolitical” consultants say they can peg voters’ feelings by observing their spontaneous responses: an electrical impulse from a key brain region, a split-­second grimace, or a moment’s hesitation as they ponder a question. The experts aim to divine voters’ intent from signals they’re not aware they’re producing. A candidate’s advisors can then attempt to use that biological data to influence voting decisions.

Political insiders say campaigns are buying into this prospect in increasing numbers, even if they’re reluctant to acknowledge it. “It’s rare that a campaign would admit to using neuromarketing techniques—though it’s quite likely the well-funded campaigns are,” says Roger Dooley, a consultant and author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing. While it’s not certain the Trump or Clinton campaigns used neuromarketing in 2016, SCL—the parent firm of Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Trump—has reportedly used facial analysis to assess whether what voters said they felt about candidates was genuine.

But even if US campaigns won’t admit to using neuromarketing, “they should be interested in it, because politics is a blood sport,” says Dan Hill, an American expert in facial-expression coding who advised Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012 election campaign. Fred Davis, a Republican strategist whose clients have included George W. Bush, John McCain, and Elizabeth Dole, says that while uptake of these technologies is somewhat limited in the US, campaigns would use neuromarketing if they thought it would give them an edge. “There’s nothing more important to a politician than winning,” he says.

The trend raises a torrent of questions in the run-up to the 2018 midterms. How well can consultants like these use neurological data to target or sway voters? And if they are as good at it as they claim, can we trust that our political decisions are truly our own? Will democracy itself start to feel the squeeze?