Can democracy function if the public’s reasoning mind is circumvented? If the building blocks of facts are purposely skewed, a balanced view of the world become unobtainable. Technology allows rivals to alter a targeted audience’s experience in way unimaginable before. No longer do consumers/participants have to look for the information, or encounter it by chance. Rather, slanted information can be served up where an audience is already living – on their social media feeds. This issue came to light in the 2019 Federal election, when Labor voters in Queensland were targeted with “death tax” disinformation, likely shifting the national poll outcome.
The issue is only going to worsen in the 2020 election in the US. A recent article from the New York Times illustrates the dilemma around the use of information in this way. It’s telling who is willing to seize this information, and who restrains themselves. But will restraint be enough as the Biden camp faces off against daily political warfare from the Trump gang?
Last September, as activists were laying plans for a climate strike in New York City, a progressive digital strategist had an idea: capture cellphone location data to collect the phone numbers of protesters in lower Manhattan.
The technique, known as geofencing, would provide valuable information for 2020. But the donors backing the march vetoed the idea as intrusive and potentially unethical, said the strategist, David Goldstein.
Right-wing allies of the Trump campaign had no such qualms. They organized their own geofencing effort, sucking up the phone numbers of many of the estimated 60,000 protesters, according to a person familiar with the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The plan, the person said, is to target potential Democratic voters with messages undercutting the party’s candidateNew York Times, March 30, 2020
In a hard reading of “freedom of expression”, the capture and use of this information would be yet more free speech. Yet, in a democracy, citizens need to look at the world and use some element of the reasoning mind to understand it, in order to make a sensible determination about who to vote for. Information used this way seems to be an end-run around this necessary intellectual process.
There have of course always been campaigns to influence voters for or against candidates or causes in the past without such technology.
But today, ubiquitous technology, providing high-sensory content, can give political actors a way to alter the experience of the world for a targeted audience, preventing their reasoning mind from grasping and weighing the variables before them.
Freedom of expression matters. But is the freedom to use information in a way that circumvents the reasoning mind, a right? This is certainly an area to watch in the future.