In 1952, US presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower used what at the time was the most technologically advanced way of advertising: televised spot commercials titled “Eisenhower Answers America", where he answered questions from “ordinary" citizens in an attempt to appear accessible to “the common man".

A few years later, his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, criticizing these methods, said, “The men who run the Eisenhower administration evidently believe that the minds of Americans can be manipulated by shows and slogans and the arts of advertising. And that conviction will, I dare say, be backed up by the greatest torrent of money ever poured out to influence an American election, poured out by men who fear nothing so much as change and who want everything to stay as it is—only more so."

Stevenson’s words perhaps can be paraphrased even today to discuss the Cambridge Analytica saga, where, allegedly, “the arts of advertising" have been used to “influence" and “manipulate voters" to vote for a certain candidate. At the heart of the outrage against Facebook, across all forms of media, lies a disdain for advertising, specifically political advertising.

Cambridge Analytica’s Christopher Wylie mentioned, in an interview, that while at the company, he helped build a “psychological warfare weapon" to “exploit mental vulnerabilities that our algorithms showed that (Facebook users) had". To anyone in the advertising business, that would sound like a regular day at work.

Modern data analytics are indeed formidable marketing tools, but they can’t squash the free will or cultural postulates of a voter. The average Internet user is bombarded constantly by micro-targeted forms of communication, be it technological companies selling cellphones that promise a certain social status, real estate companies selling “dream homes", or political candidates selling favourable policies. These brands, including those of political candidates, are eventually chosen by the consumer for what they stand for, and the level of trust and quality that the advertising message is able to signal.

A similar view towards advertising came from an unlikely source: Nobel laureate in economics and free-market advocate Friedrich A. Hayek. In a 1961 article in the Southern Economic Journal, titled “The Non-Sequitur Of The ‘Dependence Effect’", Hayek claimed that advertising was just one aspect of the extensive phenomenon that shapes preferences. In a blog post, Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw elucidates Hayek’s point: “Many preferences are created by the social environment. Literature, art, and music are all acquired tastes. A person’s demand for hearing a Mozart concerto may have been created in a music appreciation class, but this fact does not make the desire less legitimate or the music professor a sinister influence."

Hayek concluded, “It is because each individual producer thinks that the consumers can be persuaded to like his products that he endeavours to influence them. But though this effort is part of the influences which shape consumers’ taste, no producer can in any real sense ‘determine’ them."

To illustrate Hayek’s argument in a modern Indian context, take the example of a person who grows up in an orthodox Hindu family and chooses to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 general election because of the cultural philosophy of the party. Would one tag the influence of his family during childhood as manipulation?

Our political opinions, often deeply embedded, are governed by emotion and intuition, making it much harder for online advertising to modify them. What makes it even harder for political advertisements to be effective is a phenomenon known as confirmation bias—a person’s tendency to seek, favour, and cite information in a manner that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or postulates. Hence, an advertisement that challenges a person’s views might not appeal to him at all. Moreover, the “Big Five" personality traits that Cambridge Analytica boasts of mapping only predict around 5% of the variation in individuals’ political orientations, according to research published by organizational psychologists Adrian Furnham and Mark Fenton-O’Creevy.

The old adage, “don’t shoot the messenger", is perhaps valid for Facebook in this case. The company remains nothing more than an advertising platform where users connect with their friends and family in a variety of ways, exchanging personal information which is used by advertisers such as Cambridge Analytica to sell them products, in this case, a political one. When users see political advertisements on Facebook, there’s a little option button titled, ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’, at the top that lets them get an explanation of the characteristics that make them desirable to the advertiser, also allowing them to exclude themselves from the target audience. This ensures more transparency and agency for the user than most other advertising platforms.

From speeches to micro-targeted ads, political candidates advertising is a practice as old as politics itself. If the most technologically advanced advertising techniques are available to both parties, then none of the parties will have a strategic advantage in the media they use. It eventually boils down to the calibre of their narrative. Psychographic mapping cannot be a replacement for bad products or candidates.

Archit Puri is a public policy researcher and writer.

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