Psychometric Targeting in Political Campaigning: Is there an Issue?

Following the recent presidential election, news came out that Cambridge Analytica has used people’s private Facebook data to help the Trump campaign win the election. Based on recent articles such as this one, it seems that the data driven analysis and decisions were effective in increasing voter turnout for those who ended up voting for Trump, as there were many new, unpredicted voters in this election. However, there was also an uproar about the privacy concerns regarding this move. The data that Cambridge Analytica used was mostly accessible publicly and garnered through voluntary online quizzes/tests, and the targeting was done based on psychometric methods that predicted which way a person may vote. Initially, this may seem wrong in some ways, but what about this is any different than previous modes of political campaigning? Is it that psychometric methods are more accurate? Or is there something inherently different about targeting an individual based on interests and personality than on general demographics?

This post will focus on the question of what is the real difference between psychometric targeting for political campaigning today and regular political campaigning of the past? What made the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the recent presidential election so controversial compared to political campaigning of previous elections? Both types of campaigning targeted people in order to mobilize potentially beneficial voters to go out and vote. I will offer a few differences and walk through the plausibility of each of the potentially significant differences

  1. The psychometric targeting is more individual and specific than the demographic targeting of the past.
  2. The psychometric targeting can be done on a much larger scale than the older political campaigning.
  3. Only one side in the previous election used the effective psychometric political targeting and so may have had an advantage that pushed them over the edge.

These are just some of the different ideas I came up with for differences. It doesn’t seem like the first should be the significant difference for general concerns because political campaigns of the past did campaign in very specific methods, although locally rather than on a national scale. For example, even the founding fathers would capitalize on information that a person would vote a certain way when deciding whether or not to spend extra time encouraging that person to vote. This leads to the second potential question: the scale of data driven political campaigning. Is it really the scale that throws people off? This also doesn’t seem like the issue given that most people would agree that voter mobilization in general is good, and the goal of the data driven political campaigning using psychometrics is simply to increase voter turnout. However, the more refined goal is to increase voter turnout for one’s own supporting party. So is this the real distinction? That the psychometric targeting only mobilizes the side of the person using it? This also doesn’t seem to be an issue, because all political campaigning is entirely biased towards increasing voter turnout for the constituents that would help the candidate that you are supporting. In this case, it just so happened that a singular group decided to use this data-driven psychometric targeting, but there may not have been an issue if both sides had used it, increasing voter turnout in general.

Then what is the real difference between the two if not the three above?

  • The data used in this case should be private.
  • The method of influencing people to mobilize them to vote seems dishonest in some way.

Maybe it has to do with the data itself? Namely, that the data used in this case should be private. But, this also doesn’t seem like a possible distinction simply because public data for people in the age of social media and the internet is increasingly available to anyone. So, even if companies are within privacy guidelines, identifying data can still easily be accessed for people on a large scale. The only other possibility seems to be that the method of influencing people to mobilize them to vote seems dishonest in some way. But this is no different than previous political campaigning, where fake news has also been real (except not at the scale it exists at now). All in all, the real difference here seems just to be the (alleged) increased accuracy and effectiveness of the psychometric targeting method, and the trouble seems to come from the fact that only one party decided to use it whereas the other didn’t. Would the same reaction have come if both parties had used this method to mobilize voters? Is the issue with the method itself? If so, then the more pertinent question is simply how can we work to further people’s privacy protection in the digital age and how much of this privacy is necessary, desired, or even possible.

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