Business Unusual

Let me tell you a story, its about how you are being manipulated - all the time.

Are you more likely to persuade someone or manipulate them?

Both require persuasion, but manipulation implies one side will be advantaged. Consider a proposal at the moment to raise the legal drinking age. If I lay out the facts from studies and the impact from other countries that have either increased or keep the age at 18, I would be using rhetoric to persuade you. If I told you a story about someone that was killed by a young drunk driver I would be using narrative to persuade you.

If I would stand to gain financially from persuading you to keep it at 18 or raise it and I did not declare that, then whether I used rhetoric or narrative I was looking to manipulate you.

Seems simple enough. But when products are advertised do you consider it manipulation? Or, because you know there is a financial benefit, is it persuasion again?

Odds are you don’t really know and probably are not too concerned about it either.

Now let me ask about what is fair in an election and whether the same applies and how you may be being manipulated without even knowing it.

Cambridge Analytica has made a business of gathering information about people their clients would like to influence, testing which messages would work best and use the latest ad placement options to have a specific group of people receive a particular message that is intended to get them to support the client’s view.

If the client was not a candidate, but a lobby group or foreign government, how would that change your view of the justification for them being allowed to influence you?

How data companies should work is complex. On the face of it, it is supposed to be more effective marketing and advertising.

The lack of transparency though allows propaganda to be amplified with most powerful tools of the information age.

Cambridge Analytica contests the Channel 4 depiction. Facebook has suspended their access following the latest developments.

In many campaigns, marketers choose to look past demographics and focus on your personality instead.

The Big Five personality test aka OCEAN determines which of 5 characteristics you most value. They are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

The theory is that using these indicators could be more potent than just demographics with particular messages. For some, it may be true for others not.

It has not stopped people trying. Cambridge Analytica is one. Their claims and qualifications and denials about what and how they used information about US citizens to improve the chances of Donald Trump being elected President is being scrutinised. They may have engaged in behaviour that was at least unethical and at worst criminal. The CEO has been suspended, and there will be lots more to come.

It is about big data, our privacy and what we understand about human behaviour. On all three counts we have made progress, but we are perhaps at the stage that if not considered, the progress could turn against us.

Big data advocates seek to gather extensive data sets on its market and uses machine learning to find clues about what informs their customers' behaviour. Using that information they would try to get them to buy more or more often.

Collecting the data is a growing concern because they are less dependant on actual surveys and interviews, but instead passively monitoring your behaviour typically through your phone and apps on it like social media.

Once a pattern is detected, marketing messages can be tailored for a particular time of the day or your location or based on your view of specific subjects.

I will try to illustrate the range of manipulation using two other stories. (We do like stories don’t we?)

The first is from mentalist Derren Brown; he has a show on Netflix to demonstrate how we can be manipulated in the worst possible way. The Push asks if it is possible to get a stranger to commit murder. The show, which is worth watching, if only to see how social pressure gets us to do things we usually would not. He not only manages to get one of the four subjects chosen to commit what they think is a murder, he is able to convince most of them.

It required meticulous planning, and there was a good chance it would fail. It certainly raises ethical questions about whether it was justified for entertainment.

But not many would go to those lengths to influence you, and hopefully, most marketers and politicians are not looking to get you to kill someone.

From these two examples, you might think the case has been made to ban practices like this, but a story featured on NPR’s Invisibilia looks at a campaign by the UN in Somalia in 2013 to create a reality TV show to promote democracy. The UN did not declare their support for the show to the contestants or the viewers. They hoped to undermine the attitudes and behaviour advocated by the Al-Shabab group. It is hard to determine if it worked, but being able to air it in Somalia might be considered a success.

Is manipulation when done in support of a cause you agree with better than one that does not? What are the boundaries of what is acceptable and who gets to decide?

The world wide web has allowed anyone to become a publisher. Social media has allowed the published work from a hoax website to be presented in the same way as a highly regarded media company.

Users of social media have trust in the platform rather than the content posted on it. You are likely to hear someone say “I read it on Google” when Google displays an index of other websites, it does not publish them.

South Africans will recall the work of Bell Pottinger. They were hired to shift the focus from conversations about corruption claims involving the state to corruption claims about individual companies. They did this by preparing messages to be shared by others in an attempt to make it appear lots of people were concerned about the actions of the mentioned companies.

If you hear a point of view frequently expressed by a range of people and it does not directly conflict with your own beliefs you may be more likely to accept them as real rather than challenge them.

There is so much information available, much of it new to you. If you were to verify everything you would have time for nothing else. To simplify that task, we choose sources we trust. Generally, we include friends and family as part of the trusted group. When they share something, we assume they are sharing something that is true. Unfortunately, you can’t assume that. The sources we choose and often our circle of friends are likely to circulate similar stories with similar points of view.

Hearing similar points of view from a small group of people creates when is known as the echo chamber effect. Most of the shared stories would confirm your view of the world, stories that don't are more likely to be dismissed as false sometimes even when they are not.

You are forgiven for not wanting to read another thing after this, but I will remind you that amazing people doing incredible things all around us, and you would be poorer for not knowing about it. With a bit of awareness and practice, you should get more comfortable spotting the signs of a dodgy story, and by using the same tools that some try to fool you with, you can catch them at their own game. Check the source, do a reverse image search see which other reputable media is carrying the same story. If you can't, don't share it.


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