Cambridge Analytica: A Case Study In Behaviorism Run Amok

Craig Axford making the case that the news about Cambridge Analytica and their data collection on around 50 million users is not a new story at all.

However, such manipulation has been playing an increasingly overt role in our society since the early 20th century.

Axford begins with a quote by Jason Stanley from his book How Propaganda Works:

Propaganda is not simply closing off rational debate by appeal to emotion: often emotions are rational and track reasons. It rather involves closing off debate by ‘emotions detached from ideas.’ According to these classical characterizations of propaganda, formed in reflecting upon the two great wars of the twentieth century, propaganda closes off debate by bypassing the rational will…Propaganda is manipulation of the rational will to close off debate.

Axford indicates that behaviorism has subtle connections to control and motivation of people.

Though not itself a form of propaganda, behaviorism’s linear mechanistic notions of human motivation made it the perfect psychological theory for both governments and industries increasingly seeking “scientific” means of mass manipulation.

Under the right conditions, it is believed that people can be socialized, or convinced to act in a particular fashion. Axford connects the two following quotes in the piece.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

John Watson – Behaviorism’s founding father

Cambridge Analytica’s work on the Trump campaign is a clear example of how data-driven marketing techniques can change behavior in target populations. Applied to the commercial sector, these techniques can strategically engage your key audiences, improving conversion rates and boosting sales.

Cambridge Analytica’s website

Connecting the dots

We’d like to believe that technology and social media is providing insight into things we don’t know about ourselves. We’d like to believe that these analytical tools can be used to understand, and perhaps predict behaviors. Axford indicates that it’s not our searches and shares that tell a story…it’s all of the stories and data points over time. There is a need to gobble up all of these digital breadcrumbs we leave behind and connect those dots. This requires real research…and real money.

Axford closes presents a couple questions we should be asking of these technologies and practices.

  • What exactly does a particular data point reveal and how should it be weighed against all the other actions a person takes in the course of their day?
  • To what extent is two or more people clicking the thumbs up icon under the same story an indication that these individuals share the same or similar personality traits?
  • To the degree people could arguably have been conditioned to “like” (or dislike) something in either the more traditional sense or in a social media context, to what extent have the same environmental and social influences conditioned them to do so?

SOURCE: Medium

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