Let's start with a strong opening sentence - I'm fully aware of the fiery pits of scorn that wait for anyone grabbing news items and academic study and linking them with no empirical reasoning.
However, two items flashed up on my newsfeed today that seems so complementary it is difficult to resist presenting them together. If only for some food for thought - remaining critical, of course.
These two items alone are worth reading for any student of communications or anyone who hopes to introduce more science into their work as a communicator. Together, they paint potentially a dark picture of where mass-population influence is actually coming from - and raise the deep question of regulation and oversight of globally accessible media.
The first, a study by Freedom House which explores the increasing rate of manipulation by governments of social and other media. Written up by HelpNet Security here, the report notes "Governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year. Paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites, and propaganda outlets were among the techniques used by leaders to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves."
Naturally, we're curious how this may be achieved. Possible answer here?
The second item, a piece of academic research shared by University of Warwick Behavioural Science podcasters "Behave Yourself". Researchers from Columbia Business School, Stanford University, Wharton School of Business and the University of Cambridge have published a fascinating study - "Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion."
This paper illustrates the practice of delineating psychological traits from digital footprints (Facebook likes, tweets, online behaviours in general - trackable and quantifiable) and "demonstrates the effectiveness of psychological mass persuasion—that is, the adaptation of persuasive appeals to the psychological characteristics of large groups of individuals with the goal of influencing their behavior."
The paper is available online, and makes for a very interesting read.
All of which raises the question - Where should freedom of speech clash with free will?
Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.