Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What Is Cambridge Analytica's Impact On Mental Health?

Cambridge Analytica has been in the US mainstream media since at least 2015, such as in this Bloomberg piece that describes the company's activities on behalf of Republican candidates for political office.

The piece describes how the company predicts voters' psychological profiles based on their online activities and then, based on these profiles, helps candidates design micro-targeted ads aimed at those who fit these various profiles. For instance, here's a description of the company's activities circa 2014:
"[The John Bolton super-PAC] group had one objective—to convince voters to support Republican candidates based on national-security issues—and it served well to demonstrate a personality-driven theory of political persuasion. Bolton’s committee agreed to communicate over satellite-television systems like Dish and DirecTV, which, unlike broadcast and most cable systems, permitted ads to be assigned differently to specific subscribers, allowing Cambridge Analytica to fully exploit the benefit of its individual-level modeling.

The firm, which was paid $341,025 for its work, advised Bolton’s team on the design of six ads, thirty seconds each, with wildly different creative approaches. One ad, targeted at voters modeled to be conscientious and agreeable, was set to upbeat music and showed Bolton standing outdoors on a bright day, matter-of-factly addressing the need to 'leave a stronger, safer America for our children.'

In another, aimed at neurotics, the diplomat was invisible—replaced by storm clouds, foreigners burning American flags, and an admonition to 'vote like your life depends on it,' intoned by an disembodied narrator. 'That’s obviously something that’s quite emotive,' says Nix, 'as we’re really looking to drive an emotional reaction from an audience who would be inclined to give you one.'”
As more information comes to light about this company's activities, particularly in the 2016 election, something we must also consider is how the general population's mental health might be being impacted by this deliberate sort of triggering of people's personality types. I get the sense that many people are struggling, mentally, right now and these targeted ads seem designed to stoke the precise negative emotions many are experiencing.

To be sure, mental health is complicated and driven by many factors. Yet, the above snippet is just one of many tidbits that confirms for me that we're living a Black Mirror episode with no end in sight.

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