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Psychologists Should Speak Out Against the Abuse of Psychographic Data for Political Purposes

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Should psychologists take responsibility for the way in which our profession has connived in the dismantling of democracy in the UK and the US? 

When Jon Sutton wrote an article in The Psychologist in May 2018 on this topic, it was entitled: ‘Shadowy puppet masters or snake oil salesmen‘. 

Sutton was trying to make sense of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that had brought us Brexit and Trump, but his article was not followed up by any action on the part of the British Psychological Society. Does it make any difference whether it was puppet masters or snake oil salesmen who abused psychological methods and betrayed the confidence of the people whose data were exploited without their consent? We are certainly used to psychology being used in advertising and marketing, so why get upset when politicians do the same thing? 

In his article Sutton summarised the Cambridge Analytica scandal very succinctly, pointing out that Aleksandr Kogan had developed a personality-quiz app for Facebook that had been installed by more than 270,000 people. He reminded us that the data mined by this app contained information about 50 million Facebook users and had been saved by Kogan to a private database. From there Cambridge Analytica had been able to make use of 30 million psychographic profiles about voters in the run up to the Brexit referendum. 

We now know how close the ties were between the Brexit referendum and the American elections from Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s work and we also have a much clearer idea how the new methods were used in politics to influence the electorate through targeted messages that often misinformed and sometimes deliberately dis-informed voters. What stands out is that people were sent specifically scary scenarios that related to things they were particularly sensitive to and afraid of. These messages were not seen by most people, because they were rather extreme and would probably be considered unethical and unacceptable by any advertising standards agency.  So, for instance those who ended up voting leave in the Brexit referendum, but were still undecided, were sent images of their country being attacked and pillaged by Turkish invaders: a scary dystopic fantasy. 

The new Netflix film The Great Hack describes in detail how all this happened.  It refers to Cadwalladr’s Ted talk on the subject, where she specifically appeals to the bosses of Facebook and Twitter to stop interfering and asks the giants of Silicon Valley to respect the democratic process. The film is also based on Dominic Cummings’ candid public statements about the way in which Brexit was won by using these messages and the big data that underpin them. 

In his speech for Nudgestock, Cummings stated: ‘For a ten-day period we ended up running the news cycle’.  Though the country was at that time divided fifty-fifty, he boasted that: ‘our voters were more enthusiastic’. In terms of what swung the vote, he specified that ‘it wasn’t just immigration. It was about giving people a chance to vote for the NHS’. This was of course a blatant lie as we know now that Brexit will be the death knell of the NHS. The deliberate dis-information injected into the minds of vulnerable (neurotic) people (as defined by their psychological profiles, stolen from them), through a combination of experimental psychology and data science, is a scandal that should not have been allowed to happen and should have been investigated. People were inveigled into believing that the EU was dangerous to them and they were urged to save the UK and its precious health service from the ‘oppression of Brussels and the dangers of free movement’. The clinching phrase was ‘take back control’. Clever perhaps, but also hugely misleading and false. 

A small group of 7 million people were sent 1.5 billion ads over a short period of time. They were the group that psychological tests had shown were open to having a change of heart. The group Aggregate IQ (AIQ) was paid half a million pounds to run this part of the campaign and flood these people with false information. Channel 4 investigated and found this group in Canada.  

AIQ distributed content with Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. Chris Wylie, who was creative research director of Cambridge Analytica helped SCL to mine these data. Later he became a whistle-blower and revealed what had been done to our democratic process. He disclosed how it had been done and expressed his regret at having connived in doing this, recognising it was a damaging thing to be part of. 

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, who was in charge of using the data that were to directly affect both the Brexit referendum and the presidential election in the US, never denied how subtle and effective the process had been but denied that there was anything wrong with deliberately misinforming people. He did not appear to regret abusing people’s confidence and betraying the safety of our democracy, when he was grilled by MPs. He had however been caught on camera promising potential clients impressive results in changing people’s minds, playing on their sensitivities. His company predictably went under after these investigations and filed for insolvency, but the same staff were soon in leadership positions in the new company Emerdata.

None of this is secret anymore. Alexander Nix explained how Cambridge Analytica used psychographic data about people’s values and the issues that matter to them, alongside demographic and geographic material, but also benefiting from personality data about their character, along the usual OCEAN personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is the latter that seems so unacceptable, as it leads to sending people targeted and nuanced messages that strike at the core of their personal susceptibility. Additionally, when this is done with messages that are deliberately terrifying and mendacious, something very unhealthy and undermining of personal integrity is at play. Psychologists ought to take a clear stance on this. 

Some simply do not see yet that there is a big difference between trying to influence people to buy a commercial product and manipulating people’s fears in order to push them towards a particular way of voting. Nix gives the example of putting a sign on a beach saying ‘Private property’ and contrasts this with the much more effective impact of putting up a sign saying ‘Shark danger in these waters’. The point is that if there are no actual sharks in those waters, we have moved from information to disinformation and from warning people to deceiving them. We are in the dangerous territory of exploiting people’s fears. This is exactly what was done to people in the Brexit campaign, when they received threatening messages about invented and imaginary dangers from remaining in the EU. This was not just a case of misinformation, mistakes or errors, it was deliberate disinformation, sent to those with high neuroticism (worry) scores, directly pressurising them into voting for Brexit. These tactics take away people’s right to truthful information and free choice in a democratic nation. 

What is most amazing is that we have not had any official statements about this from the profession of psychology, which was clearly directly implicated, since psychological profiling methods were used to target people who had high scores on neuroticism. It is a bit like doctors collaborating with politicians to single out those with particular physical problems, playing on their fears to force them to vote in a particular manner. Doctors cannot do this, because of their Hippocratic oath. Psychologists should be similarly safeguarding individuals and society.  They should be preventing their members from spreading false information around the internet with the purpose of influencing the electorate. We may be impressed that psychological methods are so powerful and have such impact. Indeed it looks as if these methods brought us both Brexit and Trump, against all expectations and realities. We should be greatly worried, investigate and regulate against such things happening again.  

We are responsible for the way in which our methods are being used, especially if we have reason to believe this is being done unethically. Therefore, it seems crucial for the British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association to do a joint investigation of how these methods have been applied to political campaigning. It behoves these professional bodies to come up with guidelines for the use of psychographic methods and personality profiling.  We should certainly not stand by idly waiting for our democratic freedom to be further undermined by our own profession. We should be all over this and make it a priority for the profession of psychology to ensure that its methods are not responsible for misleading the electorate.

Dr Emmy van Deurzen is a philosopher and existential psychotherapist who is also a counselling psychologist. 

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