Entering the Era of Psychological Warfare

This morning I came across an article that left me quite horrified. It also spurred a lot of questions. The article in question was about how your online data can be used to build an accurate psychological profile of you … and how that profile can be used to target you, as an individual with political propaganda. The company providing this service is Cambridge Analitica.

First they were working for Ted Cruz and managed to propel him from a mere blip in the primaries to the only real threat to Trump. Here’s how they did it …

But then The Donald himself hired them. Armed with about 5000 pieces of data per American they can create fairly accurate psychological profiles of everyone living in the US. And probably of about everyone they can get data of.


Their tools can be considered as an actual weapon when deployed in these settings. Mass manipulating your electorate with individually targeted messages in order to get a candidate in is comparable with guerilla warfare on a psychological level. Cheaper, less risky and more successful.

This brings up a lot of moral questions. Can we allow this? If not, is there anything we can do against it? Do we need to fight back with the same weapons? Would that be moral?

The problem is the following: we are all influenceable. If you are sure it won’t happen to you then you’re probably an easy victim. Now that knowledge can be used for something positive, like for example getting people to buy more vegetables. Or it can be used to push the political agenda of a megalomaniac narcissist.

The conundrum of the ‘good’ people

One problem that the ‘good’ people often have is that they want to play fair. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I am all for fair play. But when faced with something like this you just have to wander: is fair play a viable strategy? If we want to create a world where people can live in harmony with each other and where sustainable production and care for the planet become a norm, do we need to change strategies? It is already a known fact that providing people with accurate data does not help to sway opinions. We need something different. Would it be possible to use this tool in a moral way? Or can we create something just as powerful that is moral to use? And if we decide to use this, who makes sure we stay on a moral path? And which morality will that be? What is the price we pay if we refuse to use these same techniques for the benefit of our society?

One thing I do know is this: we are all influenced all the time. The environment we are in influences our behaviour, who we talk to influences our behaviour, what we watch influences our behaviour, … We better make sure that behaviour is influenced in a way which is beneficial to all of us in the long run. We need to make some tough choices there and make sure we are kept accountable for them.

Let the dialogue begin!

The article on which this one is based is a bit lengthy but definitely worth a read if you want to know more about the details.

Also published on Medium.

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Filed under: Technology & Society


  1. Is fair play a viable strategy? All’s fair in love and war: People in love and soldiers in wartime are not bound by the rules of fair play. So what is the moral way forward?

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