Weaponising the Digital Psychographic


By John Filippis, Strategic Engagement Manager, Quorum

Marilyn Monroe

When people think of manipulation and exploitation the sad and somewhat troubled face that may come to mind is that of Marilyn Monroe. It is a classic but tragic story of a beautiful but troubled girl who was likely used and abused for other peoples profit and pleasure. Everyone from the Kennedy brothers, Hugh Hefner and the backstage rooms of 1950’s Hollywood, had taken an interest in getting something from her.

But exploitation and manipulation has moved far away from Marilyn’s simple world of the 1950’s, to a much colder and more calculated place. In this new place, it is algorithms, compute power, Social Media and Psychology that has the power to manipulate people and opinion, not the stereotypical men of Hollywood old.

My reanimation of Marilyn’s exploitation today has come about because I recently had the opportunity to read and reflect on some of the latest developments in the world of the digital psychographic; and how it could be used for exploitation. But on a much grander and sinister scale…

What is this digital psychographic you may ask?

A digital psychographic is essentially a synthetic model or representation of your Interests, Activities and Opinions, sometimes referred to as your IAO variables. There are other variables that combine alongside the IAO variables as well such as Personality, Values, Attitudes and Lifestyles.

Together these attributes and their corresponding values can be used to construct a synthetic model of your personality. Marketers have been using Demographics (i.e. Age, Gender, Location, Employment Status etc.)  and to a lesser degree psychographics to get more complete pictures of their target markets.

By administering carefully lettered surveys and collecting the results, a reasonably lucid picture emerges of who one’s customers really are. Once this is understood, a targeted marketing approach can then be better tuned for its intended recipients.

This type of approach is by no means ground breaking, as almost every business with an astute (but likely overpaid) marketing department has been driving this type of demographic based targeted marketing for many years.

However, there is stirring in the winds, in this new age of almost infinite compute and big data, there are equal and endless “Marketing” possibilities for both a creative and conversely a sinister mind, to explore.

It was this double-edged sword that that had me imitating Socrates over coffee, analysing the philosophical, ethical and moral conundrum of what the new age of infinite compute, big data and social media will bring to the hands of “Marketing”.

From my philosopher’s chair, I see that a heady mix of ingredients now exists which includes psychology, social media, infinite compute and big data; all of which could potentially be mixed together to influence or manipulate people to one’s favour.

Our very own innate characteristics and behavioural profiles could be used against us by unscrupulous actors, seeking to manipulate us for their gain and without us even knowing.

But how can this happen? Easy…let me explain.

What was once a blunt instrument of generalisations of a type of person (i.e. demographics) has now taken on a much more sophisticated level of individualisation (i.e. the psychographic). This has allowed psychologists to be able to construct accurate and individualised models of you from your IAO variables. So, where you were once a faceless persona amongst a large group, you are now quite visible and unique from a personality and behavioural perspective.

A psychologist armed with a strong psychographic (or synthetic model) of your personality can predict how you will behave or react to certain things with a prominent level of accuracy.

This was all made possible by you (yes you!) with assistance from the platforms of social media (i.e. Facebook) and all realised through high compute and clever psychometric algorithms pointed at key sets of big data.

Every day, millions of people leave very individualised and personality specific footprints of who they are into the likes of Facebook. Every time you follow certain personalities, Like or Don’t Like certain topics, click on certain stories; the algorithms are watching. Piece by piece they start to compile the very specific psychographic profile of who you are.

What can these algorithms predictively ascertain? Lots, it seems.

How about how liberal or conservative you are on a range of issues, or predict your religious background, your sexual preferences and the list goes on.

By giving “Marketers”  access to a Pandora’s box of millions of synthetic psychographic models of people’s personalities, it can set the pretext for a new dimension of marketing that can strongly influence people; through targeted and highly explicit messaging. These messages or marketing may come from various channels, be they corporations, government or other groups seeking to influence your opinion. It doesn’t matter where these messages originate, but what does matter is that they will be tuned to appeal to you, not people like you but YOU.

And that is a game changer. 

The most recent example of the game changing power of these highly individualised marketing tools was illustrated through the Facebook, Trump, Cambridge Analytics scandal. Where it was purported that psychographic profiles were built by Cambridge Analytica working with the Trump campaign, by accessing the Facebook data of millions of people; so as to influence voters through individualised political messaging.

The full extent of the intent or weaponisation of these psychographic tools in this instance may never be fully unravelled. Cambridge Analytica is no longer, Trump is in power and Steve Zuckerberg is now telling us (through crass and contrived emotionally based advertising) that Facebook truly care for your privacy.

My philosophical call on these corporate and political machinations, over this rather smooth piccolo is this..

There was very likely deliberate intent to manipulate voting opinion in the Trump election.

Cambridge Analytica very likely had full understanding of what they were building and why.

Facebook had very likely either sold or readily gave up the information to support the initiative.

Political persuasion to a degree is fine, but psychological and political manipulation on this order of magnitude is incredibly vile.

This was most certainly not the first time that the misuse of key data sets or psychographic models had taken place for the pursuit of profit or political influence. It was just that this situation was of higher profile and that someone like Christopher Wylie was brave enough to blow the whistle, to stop the show from going on.

Now more than ever, in this exponentially accelerating world of digitisation, it has become immeasurably important to treat and protect one’s digital footprints carefully.

A philosophical observation that I will use here to illustrate my point was insightfully penned by Marilyn. She famously said of Hollywood:

“Hollywood is a place where they pay you $1000 for a kiss and 50c for your soul”.

The weaponization of psychographics in the face of the Trump, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, takes this manipulation much further than the Harvey Weinstein types of 1950’s Hollywood, could have ever imagined.

The future will (and must) call for both ethical and technical boundaries to be erected to control how these tools can be applied (the new EU laws on privacy are a solid start). It is important that the heady cocktail of Psychology, Big Data and Social Media are mixed carefully so as not to provide the grounds for the unscrupulous to psychologically exploit people.

Only time will tell how we eventually settle on the way we treat the digital footprints or identity that we leave behind online; and whether these footprints should be sold or used by others without our consent. We need to always ensure that all technologies that come to light are able to preserve our digital privacy in the same way that our passports and drivers licenses are secured.

If Marilyn were still alive today she would likely have summed up the new digital age and its scope for manipulation with something like this:

“The digital world of Social Media and Big Data is a place where others sell your psychographic soul for millions after you have willingly given it away to them for free”.


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