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How the behavioral economy destroys democracy - and how to save it

I want to tell you today how the behavioral economy destroys democracy. As we saw last week in the storming of the Capitol building in Washington, it's a sad story, but I'll give you a spoiler at the end: the situation can be saved

The invasion of Trump supporters into the Capitol, January 6, 2021. Photo: shutterstock
The invasion of Trump supporters into the Capitol, January 6, 2021. Photo: shutterstock

I want to tell you today how the behavioral economy destroys democracy. It's a sad story, but I'll give you a spoiler at the end: the situation can be saved.

But for that, we need to understand what is happening.

The world changed last week, when the sect of Trump believers broke into the United States Congress building. For the first time we saw the power of modern technologies used to influence our decisions. And these decisions could have had devastating consequences. Some of the burglars were armed. Some carried handcuffs, saying they were going to kill the vice president. Outside, a gallows with a noose was waiting for the vice president.

By the way, I don't entirely blame the Republicans. They are true patriots. The Democrats would have acted in a similar manner - and would have been praised on their own behalf for it - if they believed XNUMX percent that there was election fraud that gave their nefarious enemies the victory. What else? Objectively, there was no evidence of Trump's claims of cheating. And yet, polls show that half of all Republicans believe him. Some believe him enough to try to forcibly occupy the House of Representatives and execute the elected officials.

The parallel universe of Trump supporters

How did we get to this situation?

The answer is that Trump and his supporters have created a parallel universe for those people. In that universe, distributed and marketed on social media to the right people in the right ways, President Trump is fighting a network of cannibalistic pedophile Satanists who run a network of child sex trafficking. Some of them are even feminists, and in any case - they all strive to bring down Trump. Perhaps it won't surprise you to find out that the vast majority of cannibal pedophiles belong to the democratic side of the political map, and who is at their head? Hillary Clinton, of course.

All of this sounds funny, until you realize that 24 of the congressional candidates in November 2020 believe in QANON, that there have been real assassination attempts in the name of this crazy theory, and of course - that some of the burglars of the US Congress fanatically believe in this story.

Juxtapose QANON with Trump's widespread use of Twitter to spread conspiracy theories and fan the flames. Add to that his actions in the 2016 elections, in which he made use of dark advertising on Facebook. He created ads that only very few people could see, tested how effective they were, and accordingly designed the ads that reached millions. It's actually A/B testing techniques to influence the mind. In this way, he adapted the messages perfectly to the different populations. He even targeted ads specifically at potential black voters, designed to persuade them not to go out and vote for Clinton.

The unsurprising result of living in this parallel universe is that people were and still are. The election was stolen from Trump. The Democrats are the devil. And now it is clear what they must do.

What we see here is the realization of "behavioral economics", as Ernst & Young defined the field. I'm quoting from their report on super trends from 2020:

"Human behavior becomes a commodity: quantified, standardized, packaged and traded, just like it is done for consumer information today. The transformation into a commodity, combined with the maturation of fields such as behavioral economics and emotion-sensitive computing, will give governments and companies the ability to influence and shape our behavior at a level they never had before. ... We are entering a world of tools of persuasion that are becoming more and more accurate and sophisticated."

And that's exactly the point: the technologies that allow us to influence our choices and decisions are advancing by leaps and bounds. Our human mind stays in the same place.

Every advertising company knows

Apparently, there is not much new in behavioral economics. The field was already established many years ago. Every advertising company that wanted to successfully influence consumer behavior tested its ads before broadcasting on control groups. Every politician has relied on public opinion polls to understand what their audience wants, provide statements accordingly - and thus influence their behavior and choices.

Trump himself used data science - mainly through Facebook and with companies like Cambridge Analytica that harvested information about users to direct the campaign. But he wasn't the first to take advantage of the cutting-edge technology of data science to influence his electorate. The first was actually one of the most celebrated democratic and liberal presidents in recent decades: Barack Obama.

In the 2012 presidential election, Obama recruited a team of a hundred data scientists for the election campaign, and they created a list of dozens of factors that might influence each and every voter. They used a system that matched different advertising messages to well-characterized voters, and examined how voters were influenced depending on the wording of the message. Again, A/B testing. They turned human behavior into a commodity, according to Ernst & Young. They checked which words and sentences "turn on" voters and which "turn" them off. They identified voters who were particularly easy to persuade, and before the elections held intensive persuasive conversations with those voters, with arguments carefully selected and adapted for each "type" of voter.

And just so you understand how irrelevant the privacy protection laws were here: Obama's people signed a deal with data collection companies: they provided the companies with addresses of "particularly vulnerable" voters, and received back, for a fee, records that reveal the television viewing pattern of the residents of those houses . Apparently, Obama's people did not know the exact identity of the residents and therefore their privacy was preserved, but this identity was not important to them in the first place: they only needed the information about the activity patterns of those residents, and with that they adjusted the advertisements on the television exactly to the appropriate viewing time.

Never, throughout the history of mankind, have scientists tried to understand such a large number of human beings at such a high resolution, while focusing on the factors that motivate each and every individual and dictate their impulses, their fears and their way of thinking.

And this situation is only going to get worse.

To understand the full potential of the behavioral economy, two types of disruptive technologies must be reviewed.

The first is artificial intelligence that is used to analyze data and extract insights and recommendations. The artificial intelligence engines that exist today at the disposal of the giant companies and the governments reach sky-high achievements. They manage to beat humans at chess and at Bego. They are able to develop advanced strategies in games that humans have not recognized by themselves in thousands of years of playing. They are able to optimize factories - lower the energy costs of Google's server farms, for example, by forty percent.

These understandings are now beginning to run also on the vast information that comes from all of us. In the coming years, they will find more successful ways to categorize us, identify what turns us on and off, and provide recommendations to do this in the most efficient way.

emotional computing

The second field that has developed rapidly in the last decade is that of emotional computing. These are algorithms capable of recognizing human emotions and reacting to them. They recognize eye movements, facial expressions and tone of voice, understand the emotions associated with all of these, and can imitate these performances themselves in computerized avatars. They can also create deep fakes that look real, with minimal effort.

These algorithms are going to be of enormous importance in influencing emotions and behaviors. One use of them could be to show leaders in seemingly embarrassing situations. A picture of Hillary Clinton, for example, at the heart of the child trafficking network. The credibility of such images will be immediately refuted by experts, but for the audience in the alternate universe it no longer matters. Another way, which is subtle but perhaps more important, is to adapt the facial appearance of the politician and his representatives to what each person wants. It doesn't take big changes to make people think the politician looks more like their dad. In fact, the changes are so subtle that they are hard to see unless you know exactly what you are looking for.

These are just two examples of the possible uses of emotional computing, and there is no doubt that this is only the tip of the iceberg. A huge world is still waiting for us when it comes to influencing the feelings and behaviors of the public.

Why did the world change a week ago? Because we have finally seen, in a way that is not ambiguous, the power of behavioral economics even in the most advanced and democratic nation in the world. And hopefully we also understood that democracy cannot be preserved when people can be treated as mere automatons, that can be turned off or on on demand.

Which leads us to the biggest question: how do you actually save democracy?

I will start with what should not be done: there is not much point in protecting privacy already. It has already been hacked, and continues to be hacked by every other application. Whoever wants to receive information about you, will receive it. It may not be perfect, but it will be good enough to manipulate you.

So what do you do?

First and foremost, the public should be skeptical. Always look for ways to direct his behavior, because the attempts to cheat will appear more and more. It will help, but not by much. We cannot be suspicious of every word that is presented to us, and the operations can reach a level that we will not notice at all.

A better answer is that the platforms should be responsible and attentive to attempts to engineer emotions and behaviors through AB testing and artificial intelligence. It starts today: Facebook banned the use of dark ads and together with Twitter blocked Trump.

The most extreme answer, but the one I believe in, is that AI emotional engineering should be outlawed, as long as it is used to steer the electorate in a certain political direction. How do you determine what a political direction is? Good question. Obviously, this is a vague issue, but the boundaries must be set. Otherwise, the meaning is that we give our democracy in the hands of the capitalists and the government.

These words are not too harsh. In a democracy, the public is the sovereign. Until today, contrary to conventional thinking, money had almost no influence on the elections. The behavioral economy together with artificial intelligence and emotional computing can change the situation, and from the moment it changes - there is no going back.

In conclusion: I know I scared you, but I am optimistic. I'm really optimistic, but in the long run. In the short term I am pessimistic because this is my job: to shed light on the threats that exist now and in the coming years. In the long run, I know that we have already been able to deal with great dangers and threats - and we have stood the test. I sincerely believe that we can maintain the autonomy of our thoughts and emotions, but for that we need to take action, and if not now - when?

So good luck to all of us, and in the meantime - beware of satan-worshipping feminist pedophile cannibals. Judging by the Twitter feed of certain Israeli journalists and politicians, they are about to immigrate to us any minute from now.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

Dr.Roey Tsezana is a futurist, lecturer and author of the books "The Guide to the Future" and "Those Who Control the Future"