From Edward Bernays to Cambridge Analytica
Advertising has had a huge impact on society over the past century. From getting people smoking in the 1930s, its sophistication has increased exponentially over time. Edward Bernays took the power of early Freudian psychology and started making people want things. By the 1960s, the marketing machine developed more sophisticated techniques that sold forms of individualism as the only choice other than totalitarianism. Music and TV became platforms that both carried the lifestyles along with the adverts – the bait with the hook.
If you doubt the power of advertising to affect the choices you make – then why do companies spend such large portions of their budgets on marketing ?
Now the exponential growth of this phenomena has continued with the internet, but the power of the data being generated at the same time has raised things up to a new level. Your shopping habits online allow companies to target you as an individual in ever more sophisticated ways.
But its the way the likes of Cambridge Analytica use data from huge sampling studies to develop algorithms that can make stunningly accurate predictions about what drives individuals emotionally that is giving cause for cold shivers. Suddenly you have people using the sophisticated psychology behind marketing, but applying it directly to an individual based on their specific concerns, fears, hopes and dreams.
If you doubt the power this has, why did the trump campaign engage them ? Why did the Brexit campaign ? Why are the most successful political campaigns confident in spending the lions share on these techniques being better than knocking on doors and discussing the issues directly ?
The ‘fake news’ hype is just one part of this, with those like Trump who have benefitted from it also trying to smear mainstream media with the same stick. Straight out of Goebbel’s playbook. We are also weaker than ever to resist these things – with people congregating in online groups where their personal views are prone to be exaggerated and reinforced. The hope for finding a broad, rational consensus based on reason and compassion is potentially under threat as a result. All it takes is another event like the great depression where people en mass are suddenly in trouble, and we are more ripe than ever for a narrative that hijacks that emotion.
There is of course another side to this, and the fact that people are having to get better at weighing the veracity of all the crap out here on the web may give some cause for hope. Also, the fact that its easy for an individual to challenge a narrative, and difficult for countries that claim to be free to suppress that, is another positive control.
Winston Churchill once famously said that Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all other forms ever thought up. His concern was that ‘the people’ were not always the most informed, but his reason for supporting it was that it is the only way to counter the truth that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts completely’. However, if technology has reached the point where ‘the people’ can be controlled, one at a time, to vote in a way far more powerfully than they are already persuaded to shop, then are we sleepwalking into something ? At best we end up with politicians with the biggest pockets to buy votes – not something new but something many countries have generally been moving away from. At worst we have a justification for totalitarianism or cruel dictatorships.