Tag: Cass Sunstein

Cambridge Analytica, the commodification of voter decision making and marketisation of democracy

CA data

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of profiles. And built models to exploit that and target their inner demons”. Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.

Neuroliberalism 

It’s been a longstanding major area of concern, of course, that neurotechnologies and ‘behavioural change’ techniques may be used to redirect citizen decision making without their explicit permission. After all, neuromarketing – the idea that the brain, behaviours, emotions and preferences can reveal hidden and profitable truths – is founded on the development of strategies of persuasion in order to profit.

This doesn’t just raise ethical concerns in the market place, since neuromarketing strategies are being used in wider contexts, such as in shaping political narratives and communications, election campaigning, policy making and within the media. The motive for employing these techniques is nonetheless about gaining a profit, if not financially, then certainly in terms of advantage and power. 

I have criticised behavioural economics extensively and frquently on previous occasions, for precisely the same reasons. Since 2010, it has somehow become acceptable for governments to exercise an influence on the decision-making and behaviours of citizens. Libertarian paternalism, under the guise of ‘behavioural science’, has normalised a manipulative, authoritarian approach for state micro-management of the perceptions, decisions and behaviours of populations. However, being a political doctrine itself, libertarian paternalism is not value-neutral or ‘objective’.   

Behavioural economics is a flagrant political misuse of psychology, a form of manipulation without the publics’ knowledge and consent. This of course has profound implications for democracy, as the state is ‘acting upon’ citizens in ways that they won’t recognise to change their behaviours and to manipulate their decision-making. In fact the government’s use of behavioural economics turns democracy completely on its head.

It’s accepted uncritically that people can pay companies and organisations to change people’s minds and persuade them to change their decisions and behaviours, be it simply aimed politically at individuals’ perceived ‘faulty’ decision-making, allegedly involved in their circumstances of poverty, claiming welfare support, or voting for a party that hasn’t paid a PR company to manipulate your voting decision.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, (co-author of “Nudge” and one of the founders of behavioural economics), wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was  named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

Back in 2014, GCHQ documents released from the Edward Snowden archive by Glenn Greenwald, were the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. The ultimate aim, of course, is to shape public perceptions, decisions and behaviours.

Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies and misinformation on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends. The Snowden archive outlines how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is, as I’ve discussed, the political misuse of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds.

Glenn Greenwald’s published document on the Intercept touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption.” Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”.

It’s not such a big inferential leap to conclude that governments are attempting to manage legitimate criticism and opposition while stage-managing our democracy.

I don’t differentiate a great deal between the behavioural insights team at the heart of the Conservative cabinet office, and the dark world of PR and  ‘big data’ and ‘strategic communications’ companies like Cambridge Analytica. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”. 

However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, because the bottom line is that it is all about influencing people’s perceptions and decisions, using psychological warfare strategies

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about some of these issues, including discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in data mining and the political ‘dark’ advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients. This is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time. 

About Cambridge Analytica: political psyops approach verified by a whistleblower

Controversy has arisen concerning Cambridge Analytica‘s use of personal information acquired by an external researcher, who claimed to be collecting it for “academic purposes”. The use of personal data collected without knowledge or permission to establish sophisticated models of user’s personalities raises ethical and privacy issues.

In a somewhat late response, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform. The Guardian has further reported that Facebook had known about this security breach for two years, but did nothing to protect its millions of users.

It is well-known that Cambridge Analytica (CA) collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer activity and internet activity, among other public and private sources. It has been reported that the company is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge. In short, the company operates using political voter surveillance and strategies of psychological manipulation.

The data analytics firm is a private company that offers services to businesses and political parties who want to “change audience behaviour”. CA combines data mining and data analysis with ‘strategic communication’ for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, to participate in US politics. 

The company claims to use “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing  “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company is known to use the ‘big five’ OCEAN scale of personality traits, among other methods of psychographic profiling. 

The company also claims to use “behavioural microtargeting” and indicates that it can predict ‘needs’ of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.”

CA, who worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign, has harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the technological giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to psychologically profile, predict and influence citizens’ voting choices. The managing director of CA’s controversial political division is Mark Turnbull, who spent 18 years at the communications firm Bell Pottinger before joining Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), which is a British ‘behavioural science’ company.

The SCL Group, that once advised Nato on so-called ‘psy-ops’, is a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company. The company describes itself as “global election management agency”.  SCL’s approach to propaganda is based upon a methodology developed by the associated Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI). 

Nigel Oakes founded the latter and also set up SCL and using the new methodology from BDI, ran election campaigns and national  communications campaigns for a broad variety of international governments.

BDI say: “The goal of the BDI is to establish Behavioural Dynamics as a discipline for the study of group behaviour change.”

There isn’t much information around about BDI’s connection with military operations, though links with NATO are well-established – see Countering propaganda: NATO spearheads use of behavioural change science, for example. From the article: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL on the other hand, has a clearly defined defence and military division who: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL has different ‘verticals’ in politics, military and commercial operations. All of those operations are based on the same methodology (Target Audience Analysis) and, as far as can be discerned from the outside, SCL and affiliates have very obscure corporate structures with confusing ownership.

In the United States, SCL has gained public recognition mainly though its affiliated corporation Cambridge Analytica. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company (the SCL Group,) to participate in US politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races.

Their site says: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will or respect on the right when it comes to the publics’ privacy, autonomy in decision making, citizens’ agency and civil liberties.   

The current controversy

Working with a whistleblower and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica, the Observer and Guardian have seen documents and gathered eyewitness reports that lift the lid on the data analytics company that helped Donald Trump to victory. The company is currently being investigated on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is a key subject in two inquiries in the UK – by the Electoral Commission, into the company’s possible role in the EU referendum and the Information Commissioner’s Office, into data analytics for political purposes – and one in the US, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion.

Previous articles by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, respectively published in February and May 2017, speculated in detail that CA had influenced both the Brexit/Vote Leave option in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum and Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign with Robert Mercer’s backing of Donald Trump being key. They also discuss the legality of using the social data farmed. CA says it is pursuing legal action over the claims made in Cadwalladr’s articles.

The whistleblower, Chris Wylie, claims that the 50 million mostly American, profiles were harvested in one of Facebook’s biggest data breaches has caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, with lawmakers in both the UK and America, and a state attorney general calling for greater accountability and regulation. The profiles were harvested by a UK-based academic, Aleksandre Kogan, and his company, Global Science Research (GSR).

Wylie said the personal information mined was used to build a system to influence voters. The Canadian, who previously worked for Cambridge Analyticahas lifted the lid on this and other practices at the company, which he describes as a “full-service propaganda machine”.

Shortly before the story broke, Facebook’s external lawyers warned the Observer that it was making “false and defamatory” allegations and reserved Facebook’s legal position. Facebook denies the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by CA, working with Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and his firm GSR, was a data breach. 

While Facebook insists that it wasn’t a data breach, claiming it was a violation by a third party app that abused user data, this responsibility offloading speaks volumes about Facebook’s approach to its users’ privacy.  

Private companies benefit from a lack of transparency over how profits are made from our personal data. Their priority seems to be to silo and hoard our data, prioritising its more commercial uses. Yet we need to think about data differently, moving away from ideas of data as a commodity to be bought and sold, and used to generate profit for a few people – be it financial or political profit.

The internet, and later the World Wide Web, was originally intended to be a democratising force, accessible to all and without walls or ownership. But the reality today is rather different. The inequalities in wealth and power inherent in neoliberalism have seeped online, marketising and commodifying our personal details, choices, views, dispositions, likes and dislikes.  

Personal data has become the driving force of the online economy, yet the economic and social value which can be generated from data is not remotely fairly distributed. In fact it isn’t being redistributed at all.

Facebook shoot the messenger

Facebook have also suspended the whistleblower Chris Wylie from the platform “pending further information” over misuse of data, along with his former employer, CA and its affiliates, and the academic they worked with, Aleksandr Kogan.

The public attack on Wylie came after he had approached Facebook about the data breach, offering to help investigate. He described it as a “chilling attack” on someone acting in the public interest.

“They acknowledged my offer but then turned around and shot the messenger. I’m trying to make amends for my mistakes and so should Facebook,” he told the Guardian.

“Facebook has known about this for at least two years and did almost nothing to fix it. This is not new. And it’s only by coming forward that Facebook is now taking action. People need to know this kind of profiling is happening.”

Kogan assembled the harvested information through an app on the site – it collected details of American citizens who were paid to take a personality test, but also gathered data on those people’s Facebook friends.

Kogan apparently had a deal to share this information with CA. But according to Wylie, most of this personal information had been taken without authorisation. He said Cambridge Analytica used it to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

Last month, both Facebook and CA CEO Alexander Nix told the parliamentary inquiry into fake news that the company did not have or use private Facebook data, or any data from Kogan’s firm, GSR.

But in its statement on Friday night, explaining why it had suspended CA and Wylie, Facebook said it had known in 2015 that profiles were passed to Nix’s company. 

“In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our platform policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica,the statement said.

CA is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. I’ve mentioned Mercer in a previous article about the right’s undue influence on the media and on voting behaviour. Mercer made his money as a pioneer in the field of Computational Linguistics.

The company was headed by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon. CA used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with ‘personalised’ persuasive  political ‘advertisements’.

It’s scandalous that documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by the Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the Facebook had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale and failed to alert users, taking only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

Last year, Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Information commissioners Office’s recent decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely. He said:

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”

He goes on to say: ”They were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”

The head of the parliamentary committee investigating fake news has accused CA and Facebook of misleading MPs in their testimony. 

After Wylie detailed the harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook profiles for CA, Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said he would be calling on the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify before the committee.

He said the company appeared to have previously sent executives able to avoid difficult questions who had “claimed not to know the answers”.

Collins also said he would be recalling the CA’s CEO, Alexander Nix, to give further testimony. “Nix denied to the committee last month that his company had received any data from [his firm] GSR,” he said. “We will be contacting Alexander Nix next week asking him to explain his comments.”

Collins has attacked Facebook for appearing to have been “deliberately avoiding answering straight questions” in to the committee.

“It is now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns,” Collins said. “Facebook knew about this, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with it.”

CA claimed that its contract with GSR stipulated that Kogan should seek “informed consent” for data collection and it had no reason to believe he would not. 

GSR was “led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections”, a company spokesman said.

The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of CA, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing Facebook data. CA spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool for the right. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to ‘resonate’.

“The ultimate product of the training set is creating a ‘gold standard’ of understanding personality from Facebook profile information,” the contract specifies. It promises to create a database of 2 million ‘matched’ profiles, identifiable and tied to electoral registers, across 11 states, but with room to expand much further.

CA responded to the Observer story on Twitter before Collins had said Nix would be recalled. “We refute(s) these mischaracterizations and false allegations,” it said:

“Reality Check: Cambridge Analytica uses client and commercially and publicly available data; we don’t use or hold any Facebook data,” the company said. “When we learned GSR sold us Facebook data that it shouldn’t have done, we deleted it all – system wide audit to verify.”

CA

CA not coercive

In response to the series of  defensive Tweets put out by CA, I quoted several claims from CA’s own site, which I had cited in an article last year. 

For example, the company offers to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

And boasts:Leveraging CA’s massive team of data scientists and academics, CA is able to provide optimal audience segments based on big data and psychographic modeling. Then, using a sophisticated electronic data delivery system, CA is able to provide TV advertising campaign data that may be used to inform media buyers about shows that have the highest concentrations of target audiences and the least amount of waste; all of which leading to higher media ROI [return on investment] and more voter conversions.”

“Psychographic Modeling”? “Conversions”?  “[…] specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate” ?

That language doesn’t sound like “advertising” to me. It sounds like microsurveilance and psychological manipulation, using the vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to all kinds of manipulations, including the intentional manipulations performed by the political machinery of our culture.

If CA genuinely thought “people are smarter than that”, then their boasts about their service of psychographic modeling, behavioural science; “understandings of the electorates’ behaviour”, “changing voter behaviours” and increasing “conversions”, “driving” voters to the polls to win campaigns and so on is nothing more than an eloborate  scam. Why bother attempting to manipulate people you think are not susceptible to manipulation?

Either way, this company has transgressed ethical boundaries, either as snake oil merchants, or as peddlers of snake oil on behalf of governments and other clients, while exploiting our personal data.

CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.”

“With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.”

And offers to help to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of owning the decision making regarding our own lives and experiences, including evaluating and deciding our own political preferences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

When David Cameron said that “knowledge of human behaviour” was part of his vision for a “new age of government” I was one of a few who didn’t see behavioural economics as the great breakthrough in social policy-making that it was being hailed as. Even the name ‘behavioural insights team’ suggests secrecy, surveilance and manipulation. It was only a matter of time before libertarian paternalism morphed into authoritarianism, hidden in plain view. 

We are being told what our ‘best interests’ are by a small group of powerful people whose interests are that want to stay powerful, despite being dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. Despite the fact that they need specialists in techniques of persuasion, rather than rational and democratic engagement, to appear credible to the electorate.  

CA pivotal role
It seems that the overarching logic of New Right neoliberalism has led to the privatisation of citizens’ decision making and behaviour and a new form of exploiting the population by misuse of their trust and their personal information.

Also, it seems democracy has been commodified and marketised.

Update

Cambridge Analytica are trying to stop the broadcast of an undercover Channel 4 News report in which its chief executive talks unguardedly about its practices. Channel 4 reporters posed as prospective clients and had a series of meetings with Cambridge Analytica that they secretly filmed — including at least one with Alexander Nix, its chief executive.

Channel 4 declined to comment. Cambridge Analytica’s spokesman also declined to comment on the undercover Channel 4 report. The company is under mounting pressure over how it uses personal data in political and election campaign work. It was banned by Facebook on Friday, which claimed it had violated the social network’s rules by failing to delete Facebook user data collected by an app supposedly for ‘research purposes’.

Facebook is now investigating ties between one of its current employees and Cambridge Analytica. Joseph Chancellor, currently a researcher at Facebook, was a director of Global Science Research, a company that provided data to Cambridge Analytica.

The nature of Chancellor’s role as a director of Global Science Research and his knowledge of Kogan’s data collection practices are not clear. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said “there was no recollection of any interactions or emails with” Chancellor.

Facebook didn’t mention Global Science Research. But Cambridge Analytica said on Saturday that it contracted the company in 2014 to “undertake a large scale research project in the United States.”

Global Science Research was incorporated in May 2014 and listed Kogan and Chancellor as directors, according to UK government records. (The records show that Global Science Research was dissolved in October 2017.) 

Channel 4 News went ahead to broadcast the Cambridge Analytica exposé despite the legal threat.

From Channel 4Revealed: Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians 

Watch Channel 4′s excellent undercover documentary.

Related 

Cambridge Analytica questioned on fake news  – UK parliament

Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St Petersburg university

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

The anti-social public relations of the PR industry

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman


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Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

Image result for Nudge critical

The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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The media need a nudge: the government using ‘behavioural science’ to manipulate the public isn’t a recent development, nudging has been happening since 2010

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Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s Nudge Unit. The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that we are fundamentally “irrational” and that many of our choices are influenced negatively by “cognitive bias.” They go on to propose that policymakers can and ought to nudge citizens towards making choices that are supposedly in their best interests and in the best interests of society.

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

And how can human interests be so narrowly defined and measured in terms of economic outcomes, within a highly competitive, “survival of the fittest” neoliberal framework? The Nudge Unit is concerned with behavioural economics, not human happiness and wellbeing.

The welfare reforms, especially the increased application of behavioural conditionality criteria and the extended use of benefit sanctions, are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – the cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. But nudge was always going to be an attractive presentation at the top of a very slippery slope all the way down to open state coercion. Most people think that nudge is just about helping men to pee on the right spot on urinals, getting us to pay our taxes on time, or to save for our old age. It isn’t.

How can sanctioning ever be considered a rational political action –  that taking away lifeline income from people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs is somehow justifiable, or “in their best interests” or about making welfare “fair”?  The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. But there is an established body of empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that denying people the means of meeting basic needs, such as money for food and fuel, undermines their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and serves to further “disincentivise” people who are already trapped at a basic level of struggling to simply survive.

The Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment for example, provided empirical evidence and a highly detailed account regarding the negative impacts of food deprivation on human motivation, behaviour, sociability, physical and psychological health. Abraham Maslow, a humanist psychologist who studied human potential, needs and motivation, said that if a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also represented in his classic hierarchy of needs. 

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to job seek.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions. (See Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions.)

Evidently the government have more than a few whopping cognitive biases of their own.

I have previously criticised nudge because of its fundamental incompatibility with traditional democratic principles, and human rights frameworks, amongst other things. Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, policies are no longer about representing and reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

I’ve also pointed out that nudge operates to manipulate at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination.

So we really do need to ask exactly in whose “best interests” the new paternalist “economologists” are acting. Nudge is being targeted specifically at the casualties of inequality, which is itself an inevitability of neoliberalism. The premise of nudge theory is that poor people make “bad choices” rather than their circumstances being recognised as an inexorable consequence of a broader context in which political decisions and the economic Darwinism that neoliberalism entails creates “winners and losers.”

I have seen very little criticism of nudge in the mainstream media until very recently. On Monday the Independent published an article about how the Chancellor exploited our cognitive biases to secure his cuts to welfare, drawing particularly on the loss aversion theory. To reiterate, in economics decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

From the Independent article:

“Researchers have also found that people do not treat possible forgone gains resulting from a decision in the same way as equivalent potential out-of-pocket losses from that same decision. The forgone gains are much less psychologically painful to contemplate than the losses. Indeed, the gains are sometimes ignored altogether.

There was an apparent attempt to harness this particular psychological bias in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Of course the Chancellor was forced into a memorable U-turn on his wildly unpopular tax credit cuts. Millions of poor working families will now not see their benefits cut in cash terms next April. Yet the Chancellor still gets virtually all his previously targeted savings from the welfare bill by 2020.

How? Because the working age welfare system will still become much less generous in five years’ time. As research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation has shown, the typical low-income working family in 2020 will be hit just as hard as they were going to be before the Autumn Statement U-turn. The Chancellor seems to be calculating that the pain of future forgone gains will be less politically toxic than immediate cash losses.”

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It’s hardly a revelation that the Conservative government are manipulating public opinion, using scapegoating, outgrouping and the creation of folk devils in order desensitize the public to the plight of the poorest citizens and to justify dismantling the welfare state incrementally. As I’ve pointed out previously, this has been going on since 2010, hidden in plain view.

In the article, Ben Chu also goes on to say:

“Experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler also suggest that this stealth approach fits with people’s sense of fairness. They found that in a time of recession and high unemployment most people they surveyed thought a hypothetical company that cut pay in cash terms was acting unfairly, while one that merely raised it by less than inflation was behaving fairly.

There was another exploitation of our psychological biases in the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced an increase in stamp duty for people buying residential properties to let. That underscored the fact that the Chancellor remains wedded to the stamp duty tax, despite pressure from public finance experts to shift to a more progressive and efficient annual property tax (perhaps an overhauled council tax).

But Mr Osborne, like all his recent predecessors, realises that stamp duty, for all its deficiencies, tends to be less resented as a form of taxing property. Why? Because of “anchoring”. When people buy a house they are mentally prepared to part with a huge sum, usually far bigger than any other transaction they will make in their lives. The additional stamp duty payable to the Treasury on top of this massive sum, large though it is, seems less offensive. People resent it less than they would if the tax were collected annually in the form of a property tax – even if, for most, it would actually make little difference over the longer term. Sticking with stamp duty is the path of least resistance.”

There is another economologist “experiment” that seems to have slipped under the radar of the media – an experiment to nudge sick and disabled people into work, attempting to utilise GPs in a blatant overextension of the intrusive and coercive arm of the state. It is aimed at ensuring sick and disabled people don’t claim benefits. I don’t recall any mention of behaviourist social experiments on the public in the Conservative manifesto.

When I am ill, I visit a doctor. I expect professional and expert support. I wouldn’t consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith about my medical conditions. Or the government more generally. There are very good reasons for that. I’m sure that Iain Duncan Smith has Dunning–Kruger syndrome. He thinks he knows better than doctors and unreliably informs us that work can set you free, it can help prevent and cure illness.  Yet I’ve never heard of a single case of work curing blindness, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer or even so much as a migraine. I’ve also yet to hear of a person’s missing limbs miraculously growing back. The Conservative “medical intervention” entails a single prescription: a work coach from the job centre. State medicine – a single dose to be taken daily: Conservative ideology, traditional prejudice and some patronising and extremely coercive paternalism. The blue pill.

I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ben Chu draws in his article. Whilst he acknowledges that:

“The Government has a Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) whose objective is to exploit the public’s psychological biases,” he goes on to say that it’s merely “to push progressive policies, such as getting us to save more for retirement and helping us make “better choices”, perhaps by counteracting the negative impact of loss aversion. But, as we’ve seen, the Chancellor is not above exploiting our biases in a cynical fashion too.” 

Progressive policies? The draconian welfare “reforms” aren’t remotely “progressive.” In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical (and nudge-driven) normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of such policies.

There is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and that person’s actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a technocratic fad that is overhyped, theoretically trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of its capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

At worst, the rise of this new form of psychopolitical behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

But for the record, when a government attempts to micromanage and manipulate the behaviour of citizens, we call that “totalitarianism” not “nudge.” 

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Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Tory rhetoric, the politics of psychobabble: it’s batshit telementalism and mystification

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Oh come all ye faithful

The Conservative conference was a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Cameron claims that he is going to address “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating them? Under Cameron’s government we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the US, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income than the UK.

I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending equal opportunities.

“Champions of social justice and opportunities”? Must have been a typo in the transcript: it’s not champions but chancers.

Cameron also claims that the Conservatives are the “party for workers”, and of course lamblasted Labour. Again. Yet it was the Labour party that introduced tax credits to ensure low paid workers had a decent standard of living, and this government are not only withdrawing that support, we are also witnessing wages drop lower than all of the other G20 countries, since 2010, the International Labour Organisation reliably informs us.

This fall not only led to a tight squeeze on living standards, it also led to a shortfall in treasury income in the form of tax revenues. But all of this is pretty standard form for Conservative governments.

It’s interesting to note that the only standing ovation Cameron had for his speech from delegates was not related to policy proposals or even rhetoric. It was a response to the bitter, spiteful and typical Tory bullying approach to any opposition: in this case, an outburst of vindictive, unqualified personal comments, misquotes, misinformation and downright lies about Jeremy Corbyn.

It was more of the usual Conservative claptrap about Labour leaders “hating Britain”. Cameron used an out-of-context quote to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” leader. Cameron had failed to give any context to Mr Corbyn’s comments that he intentionally  misquoted, failing, for example, to mention the fact that Corbyn had said the lack of a trial for Bin Laden was the “tragedy”, not his death itself. The deliberate misquote, however, was met with a deft response from the Left, hoisting Cameron by his own petard.

Here is Cameron’s speech in full technicolour and spectacular ontological insecurity:

Cameron’s malicious comments reminded me again of the Tories’ history of dirty tricks, like the Zinoviev letter, the campaign against Harold Wilson, and made me think of the almost prophetic and increasingly less fictional A Very British Coup.

Even the BBC have called the Conservatives out on their very nasty anti-democratic propaganda campaign against Corbyn.

From the deluge of incoherent commentaries to the mechanisms of telling lies: Conservatives don’t walk the talk

The fact that there is now such an extensive gap between Conservative rhetoric, the claims being made and reality makes the task of critical analysis difficult and somewhat tiring, and I’m not the only writer to comment on this.

The Conservatives use language – semantic shifts – and construct incongruent, dissonance-inducing narratives to misdirect us, and to mask the aims and consequences of their policies.  For example, the words “fair”, “support” and the phrase “making work pay” have shifted to become simple socio-linguistic codifications for very regressive punitive measures such as cuts to social security support (comparable with the principle of less eligibility embedded in the Poor Law of 1834) and benefit sanctions.

The most striking thing about the Conservative conference, for me, isn’t just the gap between rhetoric and reality, it is also the gap between the bland vocabulary used and the references, meanings and implications of what was actually being said.

The semantics are also stratified. People who are unaffected by austerity policies will probably take the bland vocabulary at face value. Cameron said:

“The British people are decent, sensible, reasonable, and they just want a government that supports the vulnerable.”

However, the “vulnerable” know a very different reality to the one substituted and described on their behalf. People who are adversely affected by Conservative policy will regard the bland vocabulary as bewildering, deceitful, frightening – especially because of its incongruence with reality – and most likely, as very threatening. Such rhetoric is designed to hide intention, but it is also designed to deliberately invalidate people’s own experiences of Tory policies and ultimately, the consequences of an imposed Tory ideology.

Not that there can be any mistaking the threats aimed at sick and disabled people from Duncan Smith in his Conference speech. He said:

“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”

Of course the Work and Pensions secretary employed a traditionally Tory simplistic, divisive rhetoric that conveniently sections the population into “deserving” tax payers and “undeserving” non-tax paying citizens, to justify his balefully misanthropic attitude towards the latter group, as usual. However, the majority of sick and disabled people have worked and have contributed tax. 

As Dr Simon Duffy, from the Centre for Welfare Reform, points out, the poor not only pay taxes they also pay the highest taxes.  For example, the poorest 10% of households pay 47% of their income in tax. This is a higher percentage than any other group. We tend to forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes.

Mr Duncan Smith said that many sick and disabled people “wanted to work” and that the Government should give them “support” to find jobs and make sure the welfare system encouraged them to get jobs.

We’ve seen the future and it’s feudal

Ah, he means “making work pay,” which is the Tory super-retro approach to policy-making, based on the 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility again.  The reality is that sick and disabled people are being coerced by the state into taking any very poorly paid work, regardless of whether or not they can work, and to translate the rhetoric further, Duncan Smith is telling us that the government will ensure the conditions of claiming social security are so dismal and brutal that no-one can survive it.

And Cameron’s promise during his address to the Conservative party conference that “an all-out assault on poverty” would be at the centre of his second term is contradicted by a sturdy research report from the Resolution Foundation that reveals planned welfare cuts will lead to an increase of 200,000 working households living in poverty by 2020.

Duncan Smith also criticised what he claimed was Labour’s “something for nothing culture” which was of course a very supportive and fair, reasonably redistributive system. He also dismissed and scorned the protests against his policies, which his party’s conference has been subject to. But demonstration and protest is a mechanism of democracy for letting a government know that their policies are having adverse consequences.

Many of the disabled protesters at the conference are being hounded, hurt and persecuted by this government and actually, we are fighting for our lives. But clearly this is not a government that listens, nor is it one that likes democratic dialogue and accountability.

In his teeth-grindingly vindictive and blindly arrogant speech, Duncan Smith also criticised the old Employment Support Allowance benefit for signing people off work when they were judged by doctors as too sick to work. He claimed that Labour treated disabled people as “passive victims.” I’m wondering what part of professional judgements that a person is too sick to work this lunatic and small-state fetishist finds so difficult to grasp. Duncan Smith is a confabulating zealot who drives a dogmatic steam-roller over people and their experiences until they take some Tory neo-feudalist deferential, flat-earth shape that he thinks they should be.

Let’s not forget that this government have actually cut support for disabled people who want to work. The Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work. The Independent Living fund was also cruelly scrapped by this Government, which also has a huge impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives.

By “support to get jobs”, what Duncan Smith actually means is no support at all. He means more workfare – free labor for Tory donors – and more sanctions – the removal of people’s lifeline social security. He also means that good ole’ totalitarian dictum of “behaviour change,” a phrase that the Tories are bandying about a lot, these days.  Ask not what the government can do for you.

And what about frail and elderly people needing support?

The public care sector has been cut by a third this past 5 years, yet people are still aging and living longer, so demand for the services has risen. We know that private residential care homes notoriously put profit over care standards, as yet there’s not been an equivalent local authority scandal, but cuts and gross underfunding mean care workers are stretched beyond limit, and there aren’t enough funds to run an adequate home care service. It’s mostly the very frail and elderly who need this service. And it’s those vulnerable citizens that are being increasingly left without adequate care, and certainly not care of a sufficient standard to maintain their dignity.

These are citizens that have paid into a social security system that was established for “cradle to the grave” support if it was needed. This government has so wickedly betrayed them. That’s hardly making a lifetime of work and contribution “pay”.

The knock on effect is that many people without adequate care end up stranded in hospital, taking up beds and resources, through no fault of their own, and as we know, the health service is also desperately struggling to provide adequate service because of Tory cuts.

The aim of Conservatives is not to meet public needs, but to nudge the public into complicity with Conservative ideology

Many writers, a number of MPs and Peers have variously likened Conservative rhetoric to George Orwell’s Doublespeak in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Others claim that the idea of a language and thought-manipulating totalitarian regime in the UK is absurd. But that said, I never thought I would witness an era of human rights abuses of disabled people, women and children by the government of a so-called first-world liberal democracy. The same government have also stated it’s their intention to repeal our Human Rights Act and exit the European Convention on Human Rights. I can understand the inclination towards disbelief.

There’s another group of people that know something is wrong,  precisely what that is becomes elusive when they try to think about it and the detail slips through their fingers, as it were, when they try to articulate it. But that’s what Tory rhetoric purposefully aims to generate in those who oppose Conservatism: confusion, cognitive dissonance and disbelief

Which brings me to the government’s woeful brand of “liberatarian paternalism” – manifested in the form of an authoritarian Nudge Unit. The fact that it exists at all and that it is openly engaged in changing people’s decision-making without their consent is an indication of an extremely anti-democratic, psychocratic approach to government. The Tories are conducting politics and policy-making using insidious techniques of persuasion and psycholinguistic hocuspocusery for psychic and material profiteering, ordinarily reserved for the very dubious, telemental, manipulative end of the diabolistic advertising industry.

Once a PR man, always a PR man, that’s David Cameron.

By telemental, I mean it’s based on a kind of communication model that is transmissional, linear, mechanistic – where people are treated as conforming, passive “receivers” of information constructs, rather than an interactive, participatory, dialogical and importantly, a democratic one where people are regarded as autonomous critical interpreters and negotiators. We’re being talked at, not with. The Tories are using telementation to communicate their ideological sales pitch, without any democratic engagement with the majority of citizens, and without any acknowledgement of their needs. (Telementation is a concept originally introduced by linguist Roy Harris. )

The co-author of Nudge theory, Cass Sunstein, actually suggested that government monitors political activism online, too. He has some links with GCHQ’s covert online operations which employ social science to inform their psychological operations to influence online interactions and outcomes. Sunstein proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as “false and damaging conspiracy theories” about the government. “Conspiracy” theories like this one, eh?

The nudging of psychobabble and neuroliberalism

Tory policy is all about social engineering using justification narratives founded on an insensate, draconian ideological and semantic unobtainium equivalent. It’s clear that this government lacks the experience and understanding necessary for the proper use of psychological terms.  The content of their smug and vindictive justification narratives and stapled-together, alienating and psychopathic rhetoric deviates markedly from even basic common sense and good judgement.

The Tories reduce long debated, complex ideas to surprisingly spiteful platitudes, and hand us back dogmas gift wrapped in aggrandized certitude.

Malice in blunderland.

There is an accessible government website outlining some of the Nudge Unit’s neurobabble and subliminal messaging “successes”, albeit the more mundane ones, like getting men to pee on the “right” part of a urinal. Or getting people to pay their taxes on time, or to donate organs.

The Nudge Unit’s behaviourism and psychological quackery, however, is all-pervasive. It has seeped into policy, political rhetoric, the media, education, the workplace, health services and is now embedded in our very vocabulary and social narrative. Every time you hear the phrase “behavioural change” you know it’s a government department acting upon citizens everywhere, using  basic, crude operant conditioning without their consent, instead of actually doing what public services should and meeting public needs. Instead, citizens are now expected to meet the government’s needs.

Where do you think the government got their pre-constructed ideological defence lexicon of psychobabble – they bandy about insidiously bland words like “incentivise” in the context of coercive state actions – such as the ideas for welfare increased conditionality and brutal operant conditioning based sanctions?

Did anyone actually ask for state “therapy” delivered by gaslighting, anti-socially disordered tyrants?

I sent an FOI asking the Department of Work and Pensions for the figures for sanctions since 2010 to the present, and I asked for the reasons they were applied. I also asked how sanctions can possibly “incentivise” or “help” people into work, and what research and academic/psychological/theoretical framework the claim is premised on, after I pointed out Maslow’s motivation theory based on a hierarchy of needs – accepted conventional wisdom is that you can’t fulfil higher level psycho-social needs without first fulfiling the fundamental biological ones.

If people are reduced to struggling to meet basic survival needs, then they can’t be “incentivised” to do anything else. And even very stupid people know that if you remove people’s means to eat, keep warm and shelter, they will probably die. It’s worth remembering that originally, benefits were calculated to meet only these basic survival needs. That’s why welfare is called a social “safety net”.

maslow-hierarchy-of-needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs

There can be no justification whatsoever for removing that crucial safety net, and certainly not as a political punishment for people falling on hard times – that may happen to anyone through no fault of their own.

No matter what vocabulary is used to dress this up and attempt to justify the removal of people’s lifeline benefits, such treatment of citizens by an allegedly democratic, first-world government is unacceptable, despicable, cruel: it’s an act of violence that cannot fail to cause harm and distress, it traps people into absolute poverty and it is particularly reprehensible because it jeopardises people’s lives.

And what kind of government does that?

The nature of deception and psychological trauma

The Government are most certainly lying to project a version of reality that isn’t real.  Critical analysis of Tory rhetoric is a very taxing, tiring challenge of endlessly trying to make sense of disturbing relations and incoherent misfits between syntax and semantics, discourse and reality events. There’s a lot of alienating, fake humanism in there.

When politicians lie, there is a break down in democracy, because citizens can no longer play an authentic role in their own life, or participate in good faith in their community, state, and nation. Deception is cruel, confusing, distressing and anxiety-provoking: keeping people purposefully blind to what the real political agendas are and why things are happening in their name which do not have their agreement and assent.

Lying, saying one thing and doing another, creating a charade to project one false reality when something else is going on, is very damaging: it leaves people experiencing such deception deeply disorientated, doubting their own memory, perception and sanity.

To cover their tracks and gloss over the gaping holes in their logic, the Tories employ mystification techniques, the prime function of which is to maintain the status quo. Marx used the concept of mystification to mean a plausible misrepresentation of what is going on (process) or what is being done (praxis) in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class (the exploiters) over or against another class (the exploited). By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters confuse and disarm the exploited.

The order of concepts is not the order of things

On a psychological level, mystification is used in abusive relationships to negate the experience of abuse, to deceive and to avoid authentic criticism and conflict. Mystification often includes gaslighting, which is a process involving the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, and has a debilitating effect on the victim’s ability to think rationally and often, to function independently of the gaslighter. It can take many forms. In all instances, however, it involves the intentional, cold and cunning distortion of accounts of reality by a predator that systematically undermines the victim’s grasp of what is happening, distorting perceptions of events, editing and re-writing for the gaslighter’s own political, financial, or psychological ends.

And of course, gaslighting exploits the fact that human beings have a tendency to deny and repress those things that are too overwhelming and painful to bear. Much psychotherapy is based on creating a safe space for allowing experience of the dreadful – which as an event has already happened – to “happen.”

A memorable example of psychological mystification is presented in a case study cited by R.D. Laing. (In Did You used to be R.D.Laing, 1989). A woman finds her husband with a naked woman in the living room. She asks: “What is that naked woman doing in my house on my sofa!?” To which her gaslighting husband, without missing a beat, replied:  “That isn’t a woman, that’s a waterfall.” 

The poor woman felt her grasp of reality weaken, because she had trusted her husband and had always tended to believe him. She lost her self to a period of psychosis because of the deep trauma this event caused her. Her husband was an authoritarian figure. We tend to accept that authority figures tell the truth, with little questioning. But it’s not a safe assumption at all.

She was made to doubt her own perception and account of events, despite the utter absurdity of the alternative account of reality presented to her. To have one’s perception and experience of reality invalidated is very painful, threatening to the self and potentially extremely damaging.

We have a government that thinks nothing of using this type of distortion and deception to cover up the worst consequences of its policies.

This is a government of authoritarians and psychocrats who have an apparent cognitive dissonance: they decided that rich people are motivated only by fincancial gains, whilst poor people are motivated only by financial losses and punishments. However, when you replace the word “incentive” with the value-laden term “deserve”, and then slot it into an ideological framework with an underpinning social Darwinist philosophy, it becomes more coherent and actually, profoundly unpleasant. The Tories think that “social justice” is about taking money from those who need the most support, and handing it to those who don’t

This is a government that’s all about manufacturing conformity and obedience. The gospel, according to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, is that we are the architects of our own misfortunes, but when it comes to good fortunes, well of course, the government claims responsibility for those. Incoherent, puerile proselytizing nonsense.

The truth of the human condition, according to the Tories, is that poor people scrounge, rich people are saintly and the former group needs humiliating and state “therapy” – degrading “paternalistic” corrective treatment, (mostly comprised of a barrage of anti-humanist ideology and the constant threat of, and often actual withdrawal of your lifeline income), whereas the latter group need all the praise, support and state handouts they can get.

This is a government that use a counterfeit and dark triad (particularly Machiavellian) inspired language to create an impression of plausibility and truth, and to hide their true aims. They are demogogues of a radical and reactionary anti-social agenda. Intolerance, fear and hatred, machismo and bullying tendencies are masqueraded as moral rectitude.

This is a government that uses superficial, incongruent, meaningless psychobabble to justify the most savage and cruelly coercive policies that we have seen in the UK during our lifetime. Those social groups unaffected by the policies think that the government are acting in our “best interests”, but people are suffering and dying as a consequence of these policies.

People’s life problems such as unemployment and poverty arise from bad decision-making from the government and are not clinical maladies, the use of or implying of pseudo-clinical terms in political victim-blame narratives and gaslighting is not meaningful or appropriate.

Political psychobabble is designed intentionally to limit the freedom of public comprehension, it neutralises our own vocabulary, and invalidates our experiences. The nasty party are engaged in psychic profiteering – a government of quacks spouting pretentious gibberish to justify taking money from the poorest citizens and handing it out to the very wealthy.

It’s irrational, incoherent psychobabble from over-controlling, obedience-obsessed irrationalists whose sole aim is to ensure the population conform to government needs, and meet the demands of neoliberalism, rather than, heaven forbid, wanting a democratic government and an economic system that actually meet public needs.

Or if you prefer plainspeak: Tory rhetoric is rather like a long-empty belfry – full of batshit.

Oh, that way madness lies.

Cam weakness
Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction. It’s time to tell a chunk of that story, complete with the relevant documents.

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four  classified  GCHQ  documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance.

Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses.

But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.

To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

Here is one illustrative list of tactics from the latest GCHQ document we’re publishing today:

Other tactics aimed at individuals are listed here, under the revealing title “discredit a target”:

Then there are the tactics used to destroy companies the agency targets:

GCHQ describes the purpose of JTRIG in starkly clear terms: “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).”

Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.

The title page of one of these documents reflects the agency’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats, and indeed, centrally involves law enforcement agents who investigate ordinary crimes:

No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption.

There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the “denial of service” tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.

The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.

As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anything terrorist or violent in their actions.”

Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, [co-author of “Nudge”], a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was recently named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

But these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds. Today’s newly published document touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption”:

Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”:

The documents lay out theories of how humans interact with one another, particularly online, and then attempt to identify ways to influence the outcomes – or “game” it:

 

We submitted numerous questions to GCHQ, including: (1) Does GCHQ in fact engage in “false flag operations” where material is posted to the Internet and falsely attributed to someone else?; (2) Does GCHQ engage in efforts to influence or manipulate political discourse online?; and (3) Does GCHQ’s mandate include targeting common criminals (such as boiler room operators), or only foreign threats?

As usual, they ignored those questions and opted instead to send their vague and nonresponsive boilerplate: “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.

Documents referenced in this article:

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

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There is an extremely anti-democratic design becoming increasingly evident in policies being formulated by the Coalition, which is aimed at protecting the interests of the very wealthy; at stifling debate, challenges and opposition; permitting political and corporate corruption whilst obscuring it; restricting access to justice for victims of government and corporate corruption and oppression; removing accountability and transparency. There is a detachment of policies from wider public needs and interests. Instead, policies are all about instructing us how to behave.

It’s only a matter of time before the new behavioural economics and so-called science of nudging decision-making is applied to influencing the population’s voting behaviour as well.

Free-will, determinism and bounded rationality in decision-making: implications for democracy

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – rationality, for example. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government have employed a group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” who claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our consent.

But democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests.

But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

That would be the government, of course. Thaler, who studied the psychology of decision-making, drawing on the exploitation of “cognitive bias” and techniques of persuasion that have until now been used only by the advertising industry, claims that we are fundamentally irrational. But according to Professor Thaler, we would “all invest in the stock market if we were rational.”  That’s a rather unique and remarkably narrow definition.

I wonder if he bothered asking everyone about that. I imagine that if he gets his way, university entrance criteria will change forever. Mind you, so will ideas about human diversity. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on social conformity, directed from the Conservative Cabinet office.

Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order.

Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction. It seems that even policies have been commodified. Poor people get bargain basement “incentives” to work harder by having their income reduced, while millionaires get the deluxe model incentives, entailing massive tax cuts and exemptions, all handed out from public funds. 

The “right” direction is towards a small State, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own invisible bootstraps. It’s the government’s new nothing for something culture, specifically for those who fall on hard times.

The pseudo-psychological framework

Behavioural Economics is actually founded in part on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psychopolitical theory that arose in the mid-20th century, which was linked to behaviourism Advocates of this perspective generalised that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus–Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, feelings, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory.

In the Coalition agreement, there is mention of “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves. David Halpern, an apparently adaptable, very pro-business behavioural economist, also plays a role in David Cameron’s Big Society project. In 2010, the entire Cabinet were impressed with Nudge, and it quickly became required reading for ministers and civil servants. 

The Guardian casually reported that Nick Clegg said he believed the new Behavioural Insights Team could “change the way citizens think.” What is particularly shocking is that the comment elicited no shock whatsoever. (The very idea of a group of right-wing authoritarians that recognise human worth only in terms of money, covertly influencing my behaviour, and that of everyone else, quite frankly appalls me.)

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a part of the Cabinet Office, is made up of people such as David Halpern, who co-authored the Cabinet Office report: Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psychobabble of decontextualised words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It’s a lot of inane managementspeak. However, the ideas behind the corporate jargon are providing a framework of experimental and often controversial policy-making on an unsuspecting public.

The report addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the public. The behaviourist educational function made patronisingly explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives.

Tory ideology is extended under the misleading  label of libertarian paternalism, which is all about shaping our behaviour, by offering “choice architecture”, that reduces public choices to “Choice.” At the heart of every Coalition welfare policy is a behaviour modification attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and founded on the discredited, pseudoscientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient”small State (minarchism) and also legitimizes them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.)

The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational. Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion, including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatizing the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens, and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Nudge theory has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using inane, meaningless acronyms to spell out a pseudoscientific neuroliberalism and to peddle made-up nonsense founded on the whopping, extensive cognitive biases of paternalist libertarians. Most of the nudge unit is comprised of behavioural economists, who are basically peddling the kind of techniques of persuasion that were usually reserved for the dubious end of the advertising industry. This is not “social psychology”, nor is it in any way related to any legitimate social science discipline. However, the creep of behaviourism into nudge based “interventions” is cause for considerable concern.

This government’s policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then. 

The Coalition aren’t engaging with us democratically, they are simply nudging us into compliance with how they think the UK ought to be. We need to ask, in a democracy, where do behavioural economists, policymakers and Tories gain the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour? Governments ought to be about supporting people in realising their aspirations, not about changing those aspirations so that they correspond to the worldview of the “choice architects.”

Nudge application: irrationality and ideological justification

Here’s a recent example of choice architecture being “rearranged.” Iain Duncan Smith said recently that limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family is well worth considering and could save a significant amount of money. The idea is being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could alienate parents. Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at,” he said. “It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

Firstly, this is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, (as opposed to faulty political decision-making and ideologically driven socioeconomic policies), that those choices are non-rational, stereotypical, and that reducing cost to the State involves making people change their faulty, stereotypical behaviours.

Secondly, the very casual use of the phrase behavioural change is an indication of just how influential  the Behavioural Insights Team (Cameron’s pet project, the Nudge Unit) has become in Tory policy-making and justification narratives. The new “behavioural theories” are all-pervasive.

On the Institute for Government website, the section called MINDSPACE Behavioural Economics  mentions “behaviour change theory” and “influencing behaviour through public policy.” A lot. But surely, in democracies, public policies are supposed to reflect and serve identified public needs, rather than being about the public meeting specific policy outcomes and government needs.

And how many of us have consented to allow this government to experiment on us via policy with what is, after all, simply a set of pet theories? And that’s what nudge theory applications via policy amounts to.

Again, the Nudge Unit simply reflects a pseudoscientific platform for extension of the government’s ideological reach, reflecting and legitimizing Tory dogmas, such as minarchism (small state, reduced or no public services and support). It’s aim is to persuade the public, using an old and discredited theory – behaviourism – that austerity, cuts to welfare and a massive reduction and mass privatisation of our remaining public services are the only option we have.

From the Mindspace site: “New insights from science and behaviour change could lead to significantly improved outcomes, and at a lower cost, than the way many conventional policy tools are used.”

The welfare “reforms” were hailed by the Conservatives as a system of help and incentives – to “nudge” people into changing their behaviour so that they try harder to find work – but they are in fact eroding people’s motivation. In other words, the reforms have deincentivised and hindered people looking for employment, achieving the very opposite to the intent claimed by the  Conservative-led Coalition. 

But given that the “reforms” are extremely punitive – cutting people’s lifeline benefits at a time when the cost of living is rocketing, unemployment and underemployment is high, jobs are insecure, wages are at an all time low, and at the time of the reforms bill being drafted and passed through parliament (it was very opposed by many, including the House of Lords – but it was forced through into law only because Cameron invoked “financial privilege”), we were in a deep recession – it’s inconceivable that the Coalition didn’t realise that the “reforms” would push people into utter desperation.

How can anyone claim that forcing people to struggle to meet basic survival needs “incentivises” or helps people into finding almost non-existent work that actually pays sufficiently to meet the cost of living? It’s impossible for people to be motivated to do anything but survive when they can’t meet their most fundamental needs. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Sanctions are used – involving the complete removal of lifeline benefits for periods of up to 3 years – when jobseekers “don’t try hard enough” to find work. However, the existence of sanction targets in job centres  indicates clearly that sanctions are being used by the government simply to remove people’s benefits and reduce the numbers of people registered as unemployed. 

Gathered evidence shows that the sanctions are rarely connected to the actual behaviours of people who are looking for work. People are being punished for simply being poor, vulnerable and claiming benefits. The recent Just about Surviving report, for example, describes a culture of fear, especially among those with serious disability or illness, who were unable to work and so felt powerless to escape or offset the financial losses causes by welfare cuts. 

Disabled people are also sanctioned, despite being deemed unfit for work by Doctors and by Atos. The report says: The sheer scale and speed of the cuts to State support left interviewees with “almost no flexibility to live with any comfort”. It meant some of those interviewed were: “Barely surviving.”

Most people who were interviewed told researchers they both wanted to work and saw benefit in working. The report calls on ministers to provide more help in getting people into work, and criticises the “lack of compassion” in the implementation of the reforms.

It is probable that the Department for Work and Pensions will dismiss the findings of the report as “anecdotal,” drawing attention to the small size and geographical reach of the research and suggest that it is not a representative analysis. But the researchers quite rightly point out: “In the absence of an official cumulative impact assessment, this report makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the Coalition’s welfare reforms”.

 

I believe there are very good reasons to employ qualitative methodology, not least, to counter the Tory preference for the quantitative, where human experience is excluded, lives are reduced in worth by referring to accounts of them as merely “anecdotal”, social groups are marginalised, dehumanised and re-defined as Others,  and the Tory statistical justificationisms – a dressed-up, dogmatic pseudopositivismend up earning them yet another toothless rebuke from Andrew Dilnot.

I’ve said elsewhere that the Tories certainly have a problem confronting human needs as well as observing and upholding concomitant human rights. It’s almost as if they assume there is an ideal, unidimensional, default-type citizen that has no needs at all. Conservatives seem to think that a person who is responsible is part of an ideally invisible, non-demanding, compliant public, who simply get on quietly with working hard for Tory corporate sponsors to make rich people profits, whilst accepting insultingly low pay and poor working conditions. If you can’t or won’t do that, then you will be nudged into compliance.

And back into the 19th century. This is not only oppression at a political level – for example, material inequality has grown because of Conservative-led policies that punish the poor and reward the wealthy – people are also being repressed existentially: emotionally, psychologically and cognitively, to ensure conformity to the prevailing elite’s idea of (Social Darwinist) norms and values.

That’s why the bankers and financial institutions that caused the global recession through behaving “irrationally” aren’t included in Cameron’s nudge social conditioning experiment. It’s largely aimed at the poor, curiously enough. Though apparently, the Conservatives believe that the wealthy are incentivised differently from the rest of us: they need rewards of even more money, tax breaks and large bonuses, rather than financial punishments to ensure they are “responsible citizens.”

The Conservatives and a largely complicit media, convey the message that poor people suffer from some sort of character flaw – a poverty of aspiration, a deviance from the decenthard-working norm. That’s untrue, of course: poor people simply suffer from material poverty which steals motivation and aspiration from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival.

However, the Conservatives have decided that in addition to bearing the burden of your poverty, you now have to work at improving your behaviour.

Mind the Mindspace:

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE acronym framework

MINDSPACE.jpg

All of these basic ideas are being utilised to prop up Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and to justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses (a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion) shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls incentivising people, by using systematic punishments, translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “state coercion” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego“behavioural insights”  are manipulations of a neoliberal, paternalist ideological grammar, contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave. And it establishs a “default setting” regarding how the public ought to behave towards poor and disabled people.

The night-watchman who looks the other way from those who need looking out for

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being our “best interests.” There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach embedded in Conservative policies aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: workshy,”  the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to that of  night-watchman  proportions – one that is only watching out for the privileged and propertied class.

Poor people are not culpable, regarding their predicament. No-one would choose to be poor. They don’t formulate the policies that create rising inequality and poverty: the Tories do. Conservatives are very good at laying out the price of everything, they even go to the trouble of sending out a grossly inaccurate statement to try to persuade the public that their taxes are paying for a projected, shameful, disproportionately costly and wasteful welfare system supporting free riders – a “bad investment” for a mythological, discrete class of taxpayers that needs to be dismantled by a thousand more Tory cuts, but they never once reflect the value and worth of anyone who has been or is going to be destroyed in the wake of their dystopic, Social Darwinist, ideologically driven meddling and propaganda peddling.

And they also fail to mention that although Conservatives are claiming they don’t agree with state interventions, they do an awful lot of those anyway, just to ensure that virtually all of our public wealth is privatised, whilst the debt, risks and pain of this is carried by those people who are the very least able to bear the burden, and actually, the least expensive to society.

The Tory market place harbours no democracy, or sentiment for rights to temper our responsibilities, unless you are rich: everyone else has to content themselves with only responsibilities, the weight of which are inversely proportional to your wealth, of course.

The link between nudge and totalitarianism

As a psychology student, I remember wondering why few psychologists had commented on the political ramifications of B.F. Skinner and behaviourism. After all, he was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians.

To recap, behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Skinner and the behaviourists casually removed the person from people. There’s no-one in the “driving seat.” We are being remotely controlled.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

How can behaviourists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjective) social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s behaviour? And how does behaviourism itself miraculously transcend the deterministic confines of stimulus-response? If all behaviours are determined, then so are psychological theories.

The Behavioural Insights Team are charlatans that are propping up the policies of an authoritarian government. Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism. She says that Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life. This domination tends to happen in stages – incrementally.

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s “Utopian” antidemocratic novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. And all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists.

The insidiousness of “libertarian paternalism” is not only due to a slippery slope from the implicit “non-coercive nudge” to explicitly coercive limits on individual autonomy and liberty.

There is also a problem with the very term, as an example of Orwellian language-use, “libertarian paternalism” renders difficult the ability to conceive of a principled distinction between policy that respects individual autonomy and policy that violates it. But there is a distinction, and the ability to defend our liberty depends on ensuring it is maintained.

Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, it’s not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects and meets public needs.

Under the nudge tyranny, that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality, reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government is substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive social operant conditioning experiment. The irony is that there is no scope offered with nudging for engaging with rational processes and stimulating critical thinking, in fact nudge bypasses rational and deliberative processes and therefore presents no opportunities whatsoever for people to learn and develop new cognitive skills.

 

The Nudge Unit has been part-privatised, protected from public scrutiny. It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It can sue for libel.

Another application of “behavioural insights”: How to demonise and demoralise jobseekers in one meaningless test. Psychometric tests always tell us more about the designers than about the people who fill them in. And at best, they can only ever indicate that a person is capable of completing a psychometric test. The whole approach of “working” on jobseekers’ “self-esteem” is complete nonsense. It assumes that unemployment is an individual failing that may be fixed at a personal level, rather than a problem of arithmetic where there are fewer jobs than the number of people who want them.

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The just world fallacy 

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