Micro-Targeted Mass Manipulation, or how Trump won the Election.
A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving — Albert Einstein.
Aside from the altruistic motive behind Einstein’s quote, he surfaces a fundamental component of human nature — we are social creatures shaped by external factors.
At the end of the day, we are the result of what we have thought. And what we think, is influenced by our daily experiences and interactions. We are influenced by individuals, societies and cultures, and in turn we all exert some kind of impact, whether conscious or subconscious, on other humans through every day actions.
It’s in our nature to try and influence people in pursuit of a personal gain or a collective cause. An individual trying to land a job, a company trying to launch a new product, or a political party trying to gain votes all share one common goal — their aim is to propagate an idea. An idea that you’re the perfect candidate for the job, that your product is the best alternative to satisfy a given need, or that voting for Pepe will lead to a collective welfare and a better life.
So, how do marketers, politicians or individuals influence people?
In the last five decades or so, media has been the main vehicle, and its influence on societies has grown exponentially with the advance of technology. We have placed our trust on the media as an authority to give us news, entertainment and education, enabling them to set the agenda for public opinion. Sadly, this agenda is usually driven by profit.
As a result we have a whole generation concerned with who kissed who on Big Brother, when 21,000 people die of hunger every day. We all know what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast, yet remain oblivious of the reasons behind the war in Syria.
Even so, whilst above the line traditional mass media channels such as TV or Radio enabled us to reach a “mass” audience, they had one key limiting factor — they could only propagate a single message to appeal to every target. And as a result, not everyone was influenced by this message.
But in the digital world, there is no such limitation.
Big Data, aside from an overused buzz word, refers to the immense trace of information we leave through our everyday actions. Processing this data results in an elaborate diagnosis of our desires, personality traits and purchase behaviours.
Try this: Google a specific product or company, and you will notice how related products and services start to pop up everywhere on the internet. Cross-channel ad targeting has been the key trend for many years in Digital Marketing.
Digital analytics enable us to segment our audience based on demographics and personality, find out what factor will be most determinant in influencing their decision through psychometrics, and adapt the message accordingly. In other words, it gives us the ability to become incredibly persuasive. And like any superpower, when used for the wrong reasons, it can lead to unpredictable and disastrous consequences.
Motherboards article on “How our likes helped Trump win” has generated a great deal of controversy. In a nutshell, the article argues that a company called Cambridge Analytica worked in favour of Brexit and Trump campaigns, by gaining access to the psychometric profiles of the majority of the US and UK population, and used micro-targeting techniques to adapt their message and gain votes.
“Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. “We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.”
Several people have argued against such claims, and the extent to which this contributed to Trump and Brexit is for each reader to decide. I definitely believe there were other factors that contributed to this outcome. What I do know is that social data drove the 2008 presidential elections, big data drove the 2012 election, and most likely micro-targeted mass manipulation, the marriage between the two, drove the 2016 elections.
Obama was the first president to rely on a digital, heavily “data-driven” campaign. Hillary followed his footsteps. Trump (or Cambridge Analytica) leveraged both social and big data to create a “message-driven”, “data-informed” campaign. And in my opinion, it’s that subtle difference that gave him the upper edge.
Don’t get me wrong, micro-targeting represents an important technological advance and significant source of competitive advantage for any company. Any marketer would be foolish not to reap it’s benefits. But it is our duty to raise awareness of the perils it poses when used with the wrong intentions. We live in an era where all the information we receive has a ridiculous amount of research and underlying hidden agendas without explicitly seeming like it.
Whilst with traditional mass media it was easier to notice the hidden purpose behind spreading such ideas, the granularity of digital targeting prevents us from discerning unrevealed motives behind every message.
We have never been more exposed to manipulation.
It is our responsibility to be aware of this, to avoid falling into carefully crafted strategies with devious intentions, and to constantly challenge the status quo to prevent becoming a digitally orquestrated society.