essays

Should There Be Limits on Persuasive Technologies?

Persuasion is as old as our species. Both democracy and the market economy depend on it. Politicians persuade citizens to vote for them, or to support different policy positions. Businesses persuade consumers to buy their products or services. We all persuade our friends to accept our choice of restaurant, movie, and so on. It’s essential to society; we couldn’t get large groups of people to work together without it. But as with many things, technology is fundamentally changing the nature of persuasion. And society needs to adapt its rules of persuasion or suffer the consequences.

Democratic societies, in particular, are in dire need of a frank conversation about the role persuasion plays in them and how technologies are enabling powerful interests to target audiences. In a society where public opinion is a ruling force, there is always a risk of it being mobilized for ill purposes — ­such as provoking fear to encourage one group to hate another in a bid to win office, or targeting personal vulnerabilities to push products that might not benefit the consumer.

In this regard, the United States, already extremely polarized, sits on a precipice.

There have long been rules around persuasion. The US Federal Trade Commission enforces laws that claims about products “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” Political advertisers must identify themselves in television ads. If someone abuses a position of power to force another person into a contract, undue influence can be argued to nullify that agreement. Yet there is more to persuasion than the truth, transparency, or simply applying pressure.

Persuasion also involves psychology, and that has been far harder to regulate. Using psychology to persuade people is not new. Edward Bernays, a pioneer of public relations and nephew to Sigmund Freud, made a marketing practice of appealing to the ego. His approach was to tie consumption to a person’s sense of self. In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays advocated engineering events to persuade target audiences as desired. In one famous stunt, he hired women to smoke cigarettes while taking part in the 1929 New York City Easter Sunday parade, causing a scandal while linking smoking with the emancipation of women. The tobacco industry would continue to market lifestyle in selling cigarettes into the 1960s.

Emotional appeals have likewise long been a facet of political campaigns. In the 1860 US presidential election, Southern politicians and newspaper editors spread fears of what a “Black Republican” win would mean, painting horrific pictures of what the emancipation of slaves would do to the country. In the 2020 US presidential election, modern-day Republicans used Cuban Americans’ fears of socialism in ads on Spanish-language radio and messaging on social media. Because of the emotions involved, many voters believed the campaigns enough to let them influence their decisions.

The Internet has enabled new technologies of persuasion to go even further. Those seeking to influence others can collect and use data about targeted audiences to create personalized messaging. Tracking the websites a person visits, the searches they make online, and what they engage with on social media, persuasion technologies enable those who have access to such tools to better understand audiences and deliver more tailored messaging where audiences are likely to see it most. This information can be combined with data about other activities, such as offline shopping habits, the places a person visits, and the insurance they buy, to create a profile of them that can be used to develop persuasive messaging that is aimed at provoking a specific response.

Our senses of self, meanwhile, are increasingly shaped by our interaction with technology. The same digital environment where we read, search, and converse with our intimates enables marketers to take that data and turn it back on us. A modern day Bernays no longer needs to ferret out the social causes that might inspire you or entice you­ — you’ve likely already shared that by your online behavior.

Some marketers posit that women feel less attractive on Mondays, particularly first thing in the morning — ­and therefore that’s the best time to advertise cosmetics to them. The New York Times once experimented by predicting the moods of readers based on article content to better target ads, enabling marketers to find audiences when they were sad or fearful. Some music streaming platforms encourage users to disclose their current moods, which helps advertisers target subscribers based on their emotional states.

The phones in our pockets provide marketers with our location in real time, helping deliver geographically relevant ads, such as propaganda to those attending a political rally. This always-on digital experience enables marketers to know what we are doing­ — and when, where, and how we might be feeling at that moment.

All of this is not intended to be alarmist. It is important not to overstate the effectiveness of persuasive technologies. But while many of them are more smoke and mirrors than reality, it is likely that they will only improve over time. The technology already exists to help predict moods of some target audiences, pinpoint their location at any given time, and deliver fairly tailored and timely messaging. How far does that ability need to go before it erodes the autonomy of those targeted to make decisions of their own free will?

Right now, there are few legal or even moral limits on persuasion­ — and few answers regarding the effectiveness of such technologies. Before it is too late, the world needs to consider what is acceptable and what is over the line.

For example, it’s been long known that people are more receptive to advertisements made with people who look like them: in race, ethnicity, age, gender. Ads have long been modified to suit the general demographic of the television show or magazine they appear in. But we can take this further. The technology exists to take your likeness and morph it with a face that is demographically similar to you. The result is a face that looks like you, but that you don’t recognize. If that turns out to be more persuasive than coarse demographic targeting, is that okay?

Another example: Instead of just advertising to you when they detect that you are vulnerable, what if advertisers craft advertisements that deliberately manipulate your mood? In some ways, being able to place ads alongside content that is likely to provoke a certain emotional response enables advertisers to do this already. The only difference is that the media outlet claims it isn’t crafting the content to deliberately achieve this. But is it acceptable to actively prime a target audience and then to deliver persuasive messaging that fits the mood?

Further, emotion-based decision-making is not the rational type of slow thinking that ought to inform important civic choices such as voting. In fact, emotional thinking threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the system, as voters are essentially provoked to move in whatever direction someone with power and money wants. Given the pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the often instant, reactive responses people have to them, how much emotion ought to be allowed in persuasive technologies? Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Finally, for most people today, exposure to information and technology is pervasive. The average US adult spends more than eleven hours a day interacting with media. Such levels of engagement lead to huge amounts of personal data generated and aggregated about you­ — your preferences, interests, and state of mind. The more those who control persuasive technologies know about us, what we are doing, how we are feeling, when we feel it, and where we are, the better they can tailor messaging that provokes us into action. The unsuspecting target is grossly disadvantaged. Is it acceptable for the same services to both mediate our digital experience and to target us? Is there ever such thing as too much targeting?

The power dynamics of persuasive technologies are changing. Access to tools and technologies of persuasion is not egalitarian. Many require large amounts of both personal data and computation power, turning modern persuasion into an arms race where the better resourced will be better placed to influence audiences.

At the same time, the average person has very little information about how these persuasion technologies work, and is thus unlikely to understand how their beliefs and opinions might be manipulated by them. What’s more, there are few rules in place to protect people from abuse of persuasion technologies, much less even a clear articulation of what constitutes a level of manipulation so great it effectively takes agency away from those targeted. This creates a positive feedback loop that is dangerous for society.

In the 1970s, there was widespread fear about so-called subliminal messaging, which claimed that images of sex and death were hidden in the details of print advertisements, as in the curls of smoke in cigarette ads and the ice cubes of liquor ads. It was pretty much all a hoax, but that didn’t stop the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission from declaring it an illegal persuasive technology. That’s how worried people were about being manipulated without their knowledge and consent.

It is time to have a serious conversation about limiting the technologies of persuasion. This must begin by articulating what is permitted and what is not. If we don’t, the powerful persuaders will become even more powerful.

This essay was written with Alicia Wanless, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

Undermining Democracy

Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

COVID-19 and Acedia

COVID-19 and Acedia

Note: This isn’t my usual essay topic. Still, I want to put it on my blog.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones — real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic.

It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

What we are confronting is something many writers in the pandemic have approached from varying angles: a restless distraction that stems not just from not knowing when it will all end, but also from not knowing what that end will look like. Perhaps the sharpest insight into this feeling has come from Jonathan Zecher, a historian of religion, who linked it to the forgotten Christian term: acedia.

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

What could this particular form of melancholy mean in an urgent global crisis? On the face of it, all of us care very much about the health risks to those we know and don’t know. Yet lurking alongside such immediate cares is a sense of dislocation that somehow interferes with how we care.

The answer can be found in an extreme thought experiment about death. In 2013, philosopher Samuel Scheffler explored a core assumption about death. We all assume that there will be a future world that survives our particular life, a world populated by people roughly like us, including some who are related to us or known to us. Though we rarely or acknowledge it, this presumed future world is the horizon towards which everything we do in the present is oriented.

But what, Scheffler asked, if we lose that assumed future world — because, say, we are told that human life will end on a fixed date not far after our own death? Then the things we value would start to lose their value. Our sense of why things matter today is built on the presumption that they will continue to matter in the future, even when we ourselves are no longer around to value them.

Our present relations to people and things are, in this deep way, future-oriented. Symphonies are written, buildings built, children conceived in the present, but always with a future in mind. What happens to our ethical bearings when we start to lose our grip on that future?

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding COVID-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

Naming this malaise may seem more trouble than its worth, but the opposite is true. Perhaps the worst thing about medieval acedia was that monks struggled with its dislocation in isolation. But today’s disruption of our sense of a future must be a shared challenge. Because what’s disrupted is the structure of care that sustains why we go on doing things together, and this can only be repaired through renewed solidarity.

Such solidarity, however, has one precondition: that we openly discuss the problem of acedia, and how it prevents us from facing our deepest future uncertainties. Once we have done that, we can recognize it as a problem we choose to face together — across political and cultural lines — as families, communities, nations and a global humanity. Which means doing so in acceptance of our shared vulnerability, rather than suffering each on our own.

This essay was written with Nick Couldry, and previously appeared on CNN.com.