Violation of mental privacy: political neuromarketing and the manipulation of democratic processes

The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, in which the collection of some personal data of users for manipulative purposes took place, invites us to reflect on numerous ethical issues, which are increasingly relevant today.

 

Advertising message The 2018 scandal of Cambridge Analytica, a British data analysis company, is undoubtedly one of the recent journalistic events that has had a global echo. A contribution for the spread of the case is due to The Great Hack, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer and produced by Netflix. The documentary narrative is structured around the contributions of some of the actors directly involved in the case and exemplifies the possibility of using personal data online to predict and influence human behavior without people being aware of it. The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, developed by academician Aleksandr Kogan through his company Global Science Research (GSR). In collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users have been paid to take a personality test and have agreed to collect their data for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the Facebook friends of the testists, leading to the accumulation of data of tens of millions of people. Cambridge Analytica, using big data analysis, created psychographic profiles in order to subsequently target users with personalized digital announcements and other manipulative information. According to the authors, this profiling and targeting was used to intentionally swing election campaigns around the world. the app also collected the information of the Facebook friends of the testists, leading to the accumulation of data of tens of millions of people. Cambridge Analytica, using big data analysis, created psychographic profiles in order to subsequently target users with personalized digital announcements and other manipulative information. According to the authors, this profiling and targeting was used to intentionally swing election campaigns around the world. the app also collected the information of the Facebook friends of the testists, leading to the accumulation of data of tens of millions of people. Cambridge Analytica, using big data analysis, created psychographic profiles in order to subsequently target users with personalized digital announcements and other manipulative information. According to the authors, this profiling and targeting was used to intentionally swing election campaigns around the world.

The story told by The Great Hack, more than an in-depth narrative of a news item, resembles a dystopian Huxleyan story. Indeed, some authors argue that, in an experimental context, the methodologies used by Cambridge Analytica do not show effects that are so significant as to find such a clear response in reality (Gibney, 2018). Nonetheless, the Cambridge Analytica case suggests numerous ethically relevant issues that deserve further investigation.

What made what Alexander Nix said achievable was the use of methods and techniques from the areas of Neuromarketing – in its political declination – and political marketing 2.0. Neuromarketing is a field of study that deals with the application of neuroscientific methods to analyze and understand human behavior, in relation to the market and its interaction with it (Lee et. Al, 2007). Political marketing 2.0, on the other hand, uses big data analysis techniques, such as “behavior-reading”, to identify and analyze the preferences and political attitudes of the voters and subsequently influence their vote (Islam, 2019). A method that exemplifies the behavior-reading technique was developed by two academics from the University of Cambridge, David Stillwell and Michal Kosinski. In their study (Kosinski et. Al, 2013), the two psychologists report the possibility of predicting information such as sexual orientation and personality traits with high accuracy by examining users’ online activity. Initially, the researchers subjected 58,000 users to a personality test known as Big Five, which measures five personality scales: extroversion, open-mindedness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and friendliness. The personality traits of each user have been correlated, through machine-learning algorithms, to the likes affixed to Facebook content, thus creating a model that represents personality profiles. These, called psychographic profiles, are used by political marketing experts to perform micro-targeting operations, a technique of political communication which consists in sending specific messages through different channels to a specific subgroup of individuals. The aim is to create a relationship between the potential voter and the political party that can influence their vote (Bodó et. Al, 2017).

In one of the most significant moments of the documentary, the journalist Carol Cadwalladr, during an interview asks Christopher Whyle, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, if the data they used had been exploited without the knowledge of the friends of the users of thisisyourdigitallife.

The issue of privacy and data processing in the context of behavior-reading has been widely discussed. In this context we speak of “mental privacy”, which can be defined as the ability to determine what information about our thinking can be shared with others (Westin, 1967). In Europe, for example, the GDPR considers the processing of behavioral data – including online activity – by third parties to be illegal, without the prior informed consent of users (McCarthy, 2019). The violation of the individual’s mental privacy, as shown by the case in question, can cause harmful consequences both for the individual and at a social level.

The Cambridge Analytica case is one of the possible scenarios caused by the violation of mental privacy. The former employee, in fact, says that Cambridge Analytica has used users’ personal data to interfere with the democratic process, undermining the moral core of the political system itself: the freedom and autonomy of the individual to decide. In a broader sense, an influence was exercised on the voters’ right to self-determination, or the fundamental right to think freely and autonomously. (Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics). Although this right is included in treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights, Bublitz (2011) points out that there are no definitions regarding meaning, the purposes or possible (and practical) violations. This is because the mind has not traditionally been regarded as a vulnerable or liable to external intrusion or interference (Bublitz and Merkel, 2014; McCarthy, 2019).

Advertising message A possible explanation of this belief is attributable to the investigation methods used by research in the field of neuromarketing and decision-making and the results it has provided so far. Some authors, through fMRI studies, claim to be able to identify and predict consumer choices, thus constituting a behavior-reading tool. Other neuroethicists argue that, even if it were, the fear that improper use of these tools would be unfounded. Indeed, access to brain imaging data would be limited to research participants only, often a scarce sample. Since in the academic context the data is collected with the informed consent of the participants, access to this data would not constitute a violation of mental privacy (SJ Stanton et al 2017). It is also known that brain imaging techniques only allow correlational inferences with respect to the investigated tasks and the observed activity. These are in fact probabilistic methods that do not provide direct information of the mental contents investigated, often related to fictitious tasks created ad hoc by the experimenters. The information obtained from behavior-reading methods based on big data refers instead to the real and spontaneous activity of individuals. Neil Levy (2007) states that the mind is not only contained in the brain, but extends beyond this, in the world, and each position has a direct ethical relevance. The online activity, and the data derived from it, they constitute an extension of the individual’s mind. For this reason, the improper use of big data analysis can constitute a well-founded fear, as witnessed by the Cambridge Analytica case.

It will be clear to the reader that the determinant of all the supposed scenarios primarily concerns access to strictly personal information. Academic research is committed to following specific ethical standards with respect to data processing and this guarantees respect for the rights of the individuals involved. These standards should be extended to anyone who collects or processes personal data, even in the private-corporate sphere. Nevertheless, it is possible, as we have seen, that access and improper use occur through illegal actions. To maintain mental privacy then we should

In practice, the obligation of internet providers may be necessary to provide the option of totally anonymous browsing that prevents profiling of online activities.