The behavioral tool of nudging is becoming extremely popular among policymakers as a new powerful instrument to alter people’s behavior in a predictable way, without however the need to restrain the set of options of actors or significantly changing their economic incentives.
However, with the advent of social media and the huge and unprecedented quantity of data potentially collectible from online platforms, society is now faced with an ethical question on nudging techniques and their possible harmful use to achieve specific political outcomes.
Nudging politics: a two-system brain
In the public policy realm, the active decision-making process that citizens face every day regarding public matters has been largely investigated in the last decade.
More recently, with the goal of finding simple and efficient regulatory solutions to promote effectively certain outcomes without recurring to bans or sanctions, various governments around the world are embracing the use of nudges as key instruments to gently push citizens towards the better and sounder alternative. Revolving around the concept of Libertarian paternalism, the new approach is based on the idea that public institutions can legitimately tackle society’s problems, with the aim of increasing welfare by affecting the citizens’ behavior without compromising the freedom or the autonomy of choice.
According to the theories of Kahneman, the process of decision-making is dictated by several factors. For example, people are subjected to a set of heuristics – i.e. mental shortcuts – that suggests a certain choice even when rationality would suggest a different one. Describing how the brain forms thoughts and acts in the choice-making process, Daniel Kahneman outlined two main systems that operate in our heads:
- System One, heuristic-based, automatic and without any sense of voluntary control;
- System Two, deliberate, analytical, and based on rational thinking.
The idea behind nudging is to leverage on these processes and encourage people to reach specific outcomes. But what happens when the outcomes pursued by the actors exploiting nudges are unclear or not even declared?
Neutrality of Nudging and its dark side
Being nudges attempts at influencing people’s judgments and decisions, they can both have positive or negative connotations according to the scope they are being used for.
When employed by governments, nudges are ostensibly paternalistic, namely inclined towards helping people to opt for decisions that are in their best interests. As such, governments implement behavioral programs with declared desired outcomes and they are always extremely transparent about the objective they are pursuing.
On the other hand, when these behavioral practices are employed by private companies, these often are extremely opaque about the outcome they are trying to achieve and thus they can be extremely harmful to social equilibrium, especially if they rely on social networks to spread and collect data.
Social networks have indeed two characteristics that make them extremely relevant accomplices in digital dark nudging: their purpose, hence communicating and sharing personal likes and dislikes, and their scale, as nowadays platforms like Facebook have more than two billion monthly active users. Due to these two features, our digital identities have gotten richer and richer over the years, and networks providers, having witnessed the growth and evolution of our tastes in any field, from music to political orientation, now own more than a decade of our beliefs and social connections.
In such settings, the potential dimension of the stream of data that could fall into the hands of private entities and help them pursue their own personal gains, as well as the potential to influence people’s opinion without even them being aware of it, are massive.
Moreover, the outcome becomes extremely dangerous for social and political equilibria when the interaction of actors with the public via social networks is carried out with the primary role of influencing elections, as the scandal of Cambridge Analytica proves.
Dark nudges in practice: the Cambridge Analytica case
Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm first hired by the UK Independence Party during the 2016 referendum on Brexit and then hired by the “Trump for president” campaign during the US presidential election of the same year.
The mechanism through which the consulting company was able to influence the political outcomes was composed by two phases. The first involved a process of data collection carried out through surveys made up of personality-profiling questions, while the second involved microtargeting campaign carried out through Facebook target advertising.
To acquire data, the Cambridge Analytica team created surveys to construct profiles of users and put them on a third-party platform that paid participants a few dollars for their responses. What really widened the data pool and allowed the firm to collect a huge amount of data on users was the shady technique employed when carrying out the surveys: after having agreed to participate, users were asked to grant the access to all their Facebook data including the respondent’s friends likes. This helped a lot the data collection process and significantly changed the effectiveness of the nudging mechanisms to be implemented.
During the second phase, instead, the firm had to actively influence beliefs of the voters and managed to do so though the construction of personalized Facebook ads, employing the marketing strategy known as microtargeting.
Buying an immense number of Facebook ads, Cambridge Analytical was indeed able to play an extremely relevant role in the political outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the US presidential campaign, targeting electors and exploiting their lack of knowledge of privacy protection.
The issue of transparency is becoming more and more crucial in modern digital society, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown. Sharing information about data collection and storage and explaining the rationale behind social networks’ algorithm are some of the solutions that can be applied to improve our awareness on nudging and fight the questionable techniques that some private agencies employ to alter our behavior and push us towards their desired outcomes. Moreover, governments hold a fundamental role in regulating these dynamics and should act legislatively to safeguard the right to data protection to avoid citizens from being exploited.
- “The Dark Nudge Era”, Chiara Campione
- “Exploring the behavioral political economy of Nudging”, Cambridge University Press