The amount of collected data combined with powerful computers make it possible to predict quite personal things that users otherwise would not share publicly. Even if you do not state your gender and age and where you live, all the other data points collected from your phone, your computers, your credit cards, etc. are enough for this basic information to be computed with accuracy. And this knowledge is worth a lot in marketing terms. It is much easier to persuade someone to do something or influence their behavior if you know them and know which buttons to push.
The company Target decided to compute whether women were pregnant, even if they had not given that information. That would be useful for marketing during the pregnancy: “We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years …As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too.”Footnote 8 Target succeeded in this profiling endeavor. About a year after the onset of this pregnancy-targeted marketing campaign, a father turned up in one of the stores, upset that his 17-year-old daughter had received a pregnancy-related advertising e-mail. When the store manager spoke to the father over the phone later, it was the father who apologized; his daughter was actually pregnant.Footnote 9 It doesn’t stop with pregnancy predictions. Big data’s power of prediction may also establish your political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and other very private, personal, but very useful information.
These data may be used for other purposes than showing you “relevant” advertising, as Facebook so nicely puts it. The information may be abused in aggressive predatory advertising, where people stuck between a rock and a hard place are targeted right where they hurt the most. Cathy O’Neil, Ph.D. in Mathematics at Harvard University, activist, and author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction (2016), points out that if someone is in possession of people’s zip codes, demographics, habits, interests, and consumer preferences, they may use this information to effectively target ads specifically to people under social and economic pressure. If you have trouble making ends meet, you get fast and furious offers of payday loans at extremely high interest rates. If you are stuck in a steady job with little chance of climbing the career ladder, you are offered courses at expensive universities. The idea behind predatory advertising is:
… to localize the most vulnerable persons and use their private information against them. This involves figuring out where they hurt the most, their so-called pain point.Footnote 10
Vulnerable people are subjected to “false or overpriced promises”Footnote 11 by leveraging their weak points. It is documented that data brokers have sold lists consisting of possible “targets” for predatory advertising of snake oil or worse that include rape survivors, addresses of Domestic Violence Shelters, senior citizens suffering from dementia, HIV/AIDS sufferers, people with diseases and prescriptions taken (including cancer and mental illness), and people with addictive behaviors and alcohol, gambling, and drug addictions.Footnote 12
Data-borne precision marketing is also exploited in political campaigns and ads. If you know the voters’ profiles, it is much easier to persuade, seduce, or manipulate them and hence influence which candidate they vote for or if need be make them stay at home on election day. With the right data, you may be able to modify behavior and maybe even influence election results.
Money may buy you both the attention of voters and the information needed to influence their behavior in the desired direction. Barack Obama’s campaign did it as early as 2008, when digital micromarketing became a big thing in American politics. Over a billion targeted e-mails were sent, particularly to young people and members of minorities in order to mobilize them to vote for the first time and vote for Obama.Footnote 13 Targeted political micromarketing reached a new level and took a dark turn in the Brexit referendum in the UK and in the 2016 Presidential Election in the USA. Both Leave.EU and Trump’s campaign hired the firm Cambridge Analytica, which marketed itself as “using data to change audience behavior” in both commercial and political advertising.Footnote 14 When the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal broke recently, it came forth that Cambridge Analytica in 2014 started scraping personally identifiable information of up to 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.Footnote 15 The numbers are possibly even higher. With sufficient data about the electorate, it is possible better to manage it emotionally praying on pain points. This may be put to shady use as part of a “voter disengagement” tactic to demobilize the opponent’s supposed supporters, so they do not vote at all. This tactic is reported to have been employed in the American presidential election to discourage African-Americans to vote for Hillary Clinton.Footnote 16 Another tactic is to fuel anger and tensions, divisions, and conflict to the benefit of one’s client. This method seems to have been employed in Kenya, where a lot of extremely divisive political messaging and targeted misinformation packages were observed during the 2017 election. Opening Pandora’s box of political targeted micromarketing leveraging pain points may not only be damaging to the civility of democratic deliberation and participation. It may pose a danger to peace and stability. As Lucy Pardon, Privacy International Policy Officer, notes:
The potential data-gathering could be extremely intrusive, including sensitive personal data such as a person’s ethnicity. In a country like Kenya, where there is history of ethnic tensions resulting in political violence, campaigning based on data analytics and profiling is untested ground fraught with great risk.Footnote 17
Many developing countries and emerging economies are at least as sensitive as the USA and UK to data misuse, misinformation, and fake news operations. At the same time, and at rapid pace, these new territories have caught the eye of the attention merchants and their entourage of big data analytics and demographic profiling to potentially hit the developing countries where it really hurts: on political self-determination.
There are dismal and even dystopian prospects in an attention and data economy where companies collect and appropriate personal information, commodify users into products, and employ the gathered information against the very users to efficiently manipulate and influence behavior (see Chap. 7).
There is a lot of money in politics. The bulk of the campaign gold is spent on buying attention and influence on radio, TV, and the Internet. However, precious attention may come for free. The attention politicians are able to secure through exposure and time allotted to speaking, making headlines and set the agenda on the mass media’s news coverage come without charge.