When I teach my critical think class I include discussions of survey methodology and the use of persuasive rhetoric. A few years ago I started discussing microtargeting in my class within the context of these discussions. Microtargeting, put in simple terms, has two steps.
The first step consists of gathering very specific data about the target population in order to learn about its members. For example, a politician might have her minions examine voters in order to discern qualities that might affect their voting. As another example, a company that sells running shoes might study athletes to see what sort of shoes they are likely to buy. The data is refined and focused to enable the identification of “microgroups” within the larger group. For example, a political survey might find some people who are conservative on social values but liberal in regards to the environment. As another example, a business survey might find a group of people who do not run but like to purchase very expensive, high end running shoes.
The second step is to use the data in order to microtarget the microgroups. For example, a politician’s minions might tailor a mailing that focuses on the politician’s pro-environment stance in order to try to win over the voters who are socially conservative but environmentally liberal. This method can be very effective. As I point out to my students, rhetoric is more effective when it is specific rather than generic. After all, the more that you know about a person, the better you can tailor your pitch to try to persuade them.
While politicians have long relied on persuasion, microtargeting does raise some ethical issues. The first is the concern that microtargeting will allow politicians and others to utilize more effective means of persuasion. The main concern is that this could be used to persuade people to purchase something or vote for someone when doing so is not in their interest. For example, a person who is a social conservative and an environmental liberal could be persuaded to vote for a pro-environment candidate who will support laws that violate the person’s conservative views. As another example, a person could be targeted and persuaded to spend more than he should be spending, thus contributing to his financial hardship.
In reply, it can be argued that this is just a more refined method of doing what has always been done. As such, it is no more unethical that the other methods. Of course, persuading people to do what is contrary to their interests could be regarded as unethical in general. Unless, of course, their interests are unethical. It can also be replied that such targeting merely allows the politician or business to learn more about their customers and hence serve their needs better. This does have a certain plausibility, except for the obvious fact that politicians and businesses are rarely devoted to serving the good of others. Their main concern tends to be serving their own interests.
A second concern is that this method might lead to deceptive practices, especially in the case of politics. The deception would most likely be a deception of omission in that one way to use this tactic is to emphasize certain things while concealing or playing down others. For example, the politician targeting the social conservative/environmental liberal would have her minions play up her environmental views while downplaying her liberal social views. Such deception seems morally questionable.
The obvious reply is that this sort of thing is already done. Politicians have long targeted their speeches to their audiences and have also taken pains to conceal certain things. For example, a politician speaking to the NRA will speak positively of guns and hunting. As another example, a politician with some questionable past associates will want to hide that fact. Of course, the mere fact that it has been done does not prove that it is correct.
A final concern is that such microtargeting in politics will actually serve to have a detrimental effect on the process of consensus building. If a politician spends too much time focusing on the micodetails, she could lose track of the bigger picture and end up taking positions that are aimed to try to please everyone. This could prove to be problematic. Of course, it can be replied that this would help increase the role of the individual. After all, if politicians have to learn about the voters and target them on a microlevel, perhaps this will enable them to better serve the needs of the people. Unless, of course, they simply use the data to get elected and then do not use it to help the people who voted for her.