Is personalized political communication manipulative?

Living in Canberra as I do, it’s no surprise that at a recent party I found myself in a conversation about the ethics of canvassing voters. With Taylor Swift in the background, a few peers and I discussed whether it was manipulative to have personal conversations with voters with the aim of getting them to vote for your candidate. The conversation was conducted very pleasantly and we eventually found ourselves in broad agreement. Nonetheless I’d like to take this a starting point to explain just why personalized political communication is not only non-manipulative, but, in fact, benefits voters.

“Personalized political communication” (PPC) is a term I draw from Rasmus Nielsen’s, Ground Wars.[1] Nielsen uses it to refer to communication in which the medium for a message is a person, not the more common media of television, pamphlets, or billboards. Relevant to this discussion, Nielsen notes that PPC is distinguished from broadcast communication principally by the facts that each interaction is unique (the message changes in response to the audience) and the communication is with a single target (not a mass audience).

Personalized political communication and voters

Generally, voters put little cognitive effort into understanding politics. Faced with many competing demands for their attention, voters behave with cognitive efficiency and use heuristics to determine how they should vote.[2] While this process may serve voters’ self-interest, it clearly falls short of increasing political consciousness – rather than reflecting systematically on politics, voters are relying on decision-making shortcuts.

However, PPC is more likely than other communication to stimulate voters to engage with politics reflectively. While most of our political decisions and, indeed, our decisions in general, are made reflexively, certain conditions will stimulate greater cognitive effort. As articulated in Petty and Cacioppo’s “Elaboration Likelihood Model”, people are more likely to process information systematically when they have greater motivation and ability to process it.[3]

PPC increases both motivation and ability to process. Recall that PPC is distinct from broadcast communication because it is unique and targeted to an individual. This means that the communication can be highly relevant – in the course of the unique conversation, considerations relevant to that individual voter can be identified. Because it can signal to a voter the idiosyncratic relevance of politics to their own life, PPC increases motivation to process and makes it more likely that voters will consciously engage with the political process.

Too, ability to process is increased by the sheer physical immediacy of a canvasser (the voter need expend no effort to learn, the opportunity is literally knocking at their door) and the fact that a canvasser can repeat points as required, and tailor their communication to the audience’s level of knowledge. This, too, increases the likelihood of voters’ reflecting meaningfully on their political choice.

How does this benefit voters? Well, in situations like these of increased “elaboration likelihood”, voters are more likely to be influenced by the strength of an argument, rather than subconscious cues. So not only do voters have more awareness of their own decision-making, they are more likely to make decisions that serve their interest. By increasing elaboration likelihood, PPC encourages voters to evaluate political arguments on their merits, better empowering voters to act in their own self-interest.

Personalized political communication and volunteers

Another relevant consideration is that PPC is using people as a medium for political communication. These people are themselves voters, and their involvement in this way has the potential to transform their own participation in the political process.

>Hahrie Han describes this process in her book Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America.[4] The book recounts not only the scale of the Organizing for America camapign (OFA) and its impact on voters, but also its impact on its own volunteers.

In order to achieve the scale it did, OFA had to teach its volunteers the “art of politics”. Tens of thousands of volunteers were trained in relational-organizing, with their participation creating lasting change in their political consciousness and participation. According to a post-election survey of more than 1 million volunteers, 95 percent of team leaders and 75 percent of volunteers would continue to remain active in their communities “as a result of their involvement with the campaign.” Around ten percent suggested they might use their newfound skills to run for public office. It’s important to note too that this vast quantity of volunteers includes tens of thousands of hitherto ordinary citizens who would have been contacted through PPC prior to becoming active – not only changing how they vote, but also changing how they participate in our democracy.

PPC may also benefit voters by giving them tremendous internal power to hold a campaign to account. If a campaign uses only broadcast methods of political communication, it is dependent principally upon financial resources and can operate without being accountable to supporters. The main donor to the Palmer United Party in Australia, for example, is Clive Palmer or companies owned by Clive Palmer.[5]

However, if a campaign includes voters-as-volunteers practising PPC, these volunteers then become constituents within the campaign itself who exercise influence over how the campaign behaves with respect to both the volunteers and the broader community. Ethical political campaigns should be accountable not just to donors, but to communities. By creating a dependency upon volunteers, PPC increases the power of voters over a campaign.

While PPC doesn’t necessitate an organizing-style approach to engaging voters, the electoral arms race is seeing a renaissance not only of PPC but, correspondingly, of electoral organizing which seeks to “respect, empower, and include” voters in the campaign and the political process. Independent of any effect on non-volunteer voters, PPC creates an opportunity for volunteers to take part in a campaign themselves. When this is done in the context of organizing, such volunteers can be transformed.

Personalized political communication and you

It seems glib to use a nefarious term like “manipulative” to assess political campaigning. But this term allows us to convey a sense of discomfort and to evaluate different campaigning methods with respect to this sense. So, while it is not possible to say in absolute terms if personalized political communication is in fact “manipulative”, we can perhaps place such electoral tactics on a spectrum in relation to other methods of political communication.

The above analysis suggests that PPC is more beneficial to voters and less manipulative than non-personal broadcast methods of political communication. PPC increases “elaboration likelihood”, causing voters to pay more attention to politics and leaving them more likely to vote in a way that serves their self-interest. Too, campaigns employing PPC are more accountable to and representative of communities, which they leave vitalized and empowered through their engagement with the campaign.

In evaluating political campaigns we might ask – what would the ideal political campaign be like? I think the ideal political campaign would see far more constituents taking part, having conversations with their neighbours and working within their community to discovery and articulate their shared values, then working to support candidates who represented this. Though far off, this destination is may yet be reached with PPC, with one-on-one conversations, each one engaging and transforming both people it.

[1] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. Ground Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.
[2] Alvarez, R. Michael, Arthur Lupia, and Mathew D. McCubbins. ‘The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need To Know?’. The American Political Science Review 94.2 (2000): 463. Web.
[3] Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. ‘The Elaboration Likelihood Model Of Persuasion’. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 19 (1986): n. pag. Print.
[4] McKenna, Elizabeth, and Hahrie Han. Groundbreakers.
[5] Tableau Software,. ‘2013/14 Australian Political Donations – Reported Donations’. N.p., 2015. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.


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