Just a Little Help from Friends Government Style

September 16, 2021

Nothing should be surprising anymore when it comes to online privacy and targeted ads, but The Guardian shares how governments are trying to alter behavior in the article: “Study Finds Growing Government Use of Sensitive Behavior To ‘Nudge’ Behavior.” Governments have turned to targeted ads on search engines and social media platforms to shape or “nudge” their citizens’ behaviors.

This is a new move “stems from a marriage between the introduction of nudge theory in policymaking and an online advertising infrastructure that provides unforeseen opportunities to run behavioural adjustment campaigns.” Implementing this type of behavior modification could create a perfect feedback loop:

“’With the government, you’ve got access to all this data where you can see pretty much in real time who you need to talk to demographically, and then on the other end you can actually see, well, ‘did this make a difference?’,’ said Ben Collier, of the University of Edinburgh. ‘The government doing this supercharges the ability of it to actually work.’”

Government behavioral modification programs are not new. Countries across the globe have long histories of altering citizens’ behaviors. The United Kingdom is currently employing targeted ad campaigns to deter minors from becoming online fraudsters. Identified at-risk minors online activities are monitored collect data on them that are then used for “influence policing” campaigns with targeted ads. Another influence policing campaign the UK dealt with fire safety. People who purchased candles or matches on Amazon were sent targeted fire safety messages.

The targeted ads appear innocuous and helpful, but the government farms out the work to third party companies. Governments and companies could become lackadaisical with people information and it could impart disinformation. For example, minors targeted with anti-knife violence campaigns might believe that more people carry knives than reality. This could inspire minors to start carrying knives. The anti-fraudster campaigns could also inspire minors to become online bad actors, while the fire safety ads might encourage playing with fire.

Cue the music, please.

Whitney Grace, September 16, 2021


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