Personalisation and politics

I have to admit to following the Republican party’s presidential candidate race with some fascination. It’s a slightly ghoulish fascination – there’s often a touch of fear when I listen to some of the candidates, and there’s always the underlying question of ‘how low can they go’. There’s comedy, tragedy, a bit of historical eccentricity, and often a good deal of farce. It’s also, however, revealing of some of the issues that we should take seriously in terms of how our politics, our democratic politics, functions – and in particular, how it might function in the future.

One particular aspect that came to the fore to me in the recent Iowa Caucus – the role of advertising in politics. We haven’t developed it to nearly the same degree in the UK as the US, though every successful politician this side of the pond has tried to follow Thatcher’s hugely effective use of Saatchi & Saatchi. In the US, though, it’s a highly developed art form – and is only likely to become more so. In Iowa, an orchestrated advertising campaign against the surging Newt Gingrich sent him down from first to fourth place (and nearly out of the race) in a matter of days. Advertising works, or at least appears to – and politicians know it, and know it well.

What might this mean for the future? I’ve written about advertising many times before, both in academic papers and in blogs. The internet is changing advertising – and we need to be aware of how that change might have an impact not only on our commercial behaviour but on our political behaviour: on politics itself. There are two trends in internet advertising that are particularly relevant and worth thinking about here: behavioural profiling and personalisation. People browsing the internet can be (and are) profiled according to their online behaviour, from the search terms they use and the links they follow to the friends they have on social media sites, the music they listen to, movies they watch and so forth. That profiling is generally used to target advertising – advertising more suited to their personal needs and desires. My last blog, Privacy and the Phantom Tollbooth, talked about some of the risks of this kind of thing – but when looked at from a political perspective the risks are even more sinister.

Through profiling, it is possible to make good guesses – sometimes very good guesses – as to which political issues matter to someone and which ones don’t. With just a little bit of work, the vast majority of which could be entirely automatic, it could become possible to create tailored political advertisements designed to highlight the policies or features of a particular candidate or party that are of specific interest to an individual – and to omit anything that might detract from their attraction. And, given the US experience in particular, to do the reverse for any opponents – automatically pick out the things that will make a particular voter see them in the most negative light possible.

Taking this a few steps further, these ads could include background music that the advertiser knows that you particularly like, and even voice-overs by an actor that they know you admire – they could even choose the colours, styles and typefaces to suit your ‘known’ preferences. Of course they wouldn’t do this for everyone, at least not at first, but it wouldn’t take that much effort to produce a range of options (a handful of different actors, soundtracks etc would do the job) that would cover most of the key, swing voters. Political advertising in its current form is already persuasive – how much more persuasive could it be in this kind of form? And remember that with behavioural targeting in the hands of relatively few advertising organisations, these advertisements can be sent to a vast number of different websites that you visit. They can be sent to you in emails. They can be inserted at the beginnings of videos that you watch online…. the possibilities are endless.

Is this far fetched? A nightmare scenario beyond the realms of possibility? Spend a little time watching US elections and I don’t think you’ll feel that way. It’s just the logical extension of existing advertising and political trends. It is important to remember, too, that this kind of thing requires money – and money already talks enormously in politics. The power of personalised advertising can very easily become just one more tool in the hands of those who already wield excessive power over the political domain.

What can be done? Well, the first thing is a matter of awareness. The impact of behavioural advertising goes beyond the commercial sphere, and we need to understand this. It’s not just a matter of deciding which deodorant or drink we choose – potentially it’s about our whole lives. We ignore its importance at our peril – so things like ‘do not track’ really matter, and the European ‘Cookie Directive’ should not be dismissed as a legalistic impediment to good business. They may not be perfect tools – indeed, it seems clear that they aren’t – but they’re being pushed for very good reasons. Tracking on the internet should not be the default, accepted without a thought. The risks are far greater than most people realise.

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