Online marketing and (EU) elections in the digital age — your choices are not your own

On the ethics of Big Data, persuasion, and the existence of free will

Erwin Lima
Published in
8 min readMay 23, 2019

Can any of us truly maintain that we choose what we choose freely in today’s world? What is unethical manipulation and how can we discern it or protect ourselves from it?

On the train to Brussels, as I see the neat, flat and rainy terrain of the Netherlands gradually turn into the slightly more lush november landscape of northern Belgium, a single thought keeps coming back to my mind. Kind of like an annoying wasp.

I have been invited to attend the European Parliament seminar on “fighting disinformation in the digital age”, which is right up my alley as a philosopher of marketing and technology. I can’t wait to learn more about the workings and ethics of cutting-edge communication and data technologies.

What makes a person choose anything? The question that keeps coming back to my mind is: what really made me choose to come to this seminar?

Free will does not exist and big data does

Contemporary scientific consensus holds that free will does not exist. The logical idea that determinism rules and that free choice or free will can not exist sits very uncomfortably with me as a human being, a writer, and a marketer.

So, my genes combined with my life experiences made me choose to write this article? But what if I didn’t want them to?

If free will indeed does not exist, then how bad can it really be that marketers and political campaigners alike use Big Data and methods like microtargeting, psychological profiling? Or that they deploy bots posing as (human) social media accounts, neuromarketing and other advanced science and technology to sway people in their preferred direction?

One of the main reasons I was interested to see what the seminar in Brussels was all about, was that Jeroen van den Hoven, professor of Big Data Ethics at the Technical University of Delft (TUD), would be present during a panel discussion on the second day. So I would be able to ask him precisely that question.



Erwin Lima

Exploring and maximising human potential. I write about tech, marketing, writing, love, money, society; life. Find my newest book here: