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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Is Your Personality Profile Being Used To Brainwash You and Undermine Democracy?

Thought for the Day: I have intentionally, with a heavy heart, been silent on this blog for some time now.  Followers of my blog know I usually have something to say about the psychological impact of significant events in the news. Throughout the contentious campaign and election, I avoided politics and wanted to be respectful of all political views. As a psychologist, I feel my political opinions do not belong in my practice as a therapist. However, current events make me feel it is my social responsibility as a psychologist to speak up. I feel it is imperative to warn people of the misuse of psychological research to usurp people’s privacy in an effort to influence their behavior in unethical and possibly illegal ways. I am also concerned about the impact of the political climate on the emotional health of my clients, America, and the entire world. I do not consider myself an alarmist, but am increasingly worried that the abuse of what should be protected psychological techniques and information is endangering the future of our democracy and the free world.

     I started writing this post in December, but found myself unable to finish it until now. Psychologists are not immune to traumatic events, misleading information or targeted advertisements. Like many people in our great country, the results of the election left me shocked, dumbfounded and frightened. For the first time in my life, I was reluctant to speak my mind publicly. Would I be black-listed like people in the McCarthy Era? Would trolls start posting on my blog, Facebook page or twitter feed? Would my professional credibility be questioned? Could my family be endangered?  

     Although I am still fearful that speaking my mind may lead to potential harm, I have come to realize that unprecedented times demand unprecedented actions. I saw a sign at a demonstration which said, "Nothing About This is NORMAL." As a psychologist who has lived through many transitions of power, I can attest that what is happening in our nation is not normal. As a child, I often wondered what I would have done if I had grown up during World War II. I hoped I would have been part of the resistance. As a Jew, growing up in Texas, although I was in a minority, I barely experienced anti-semitism but was well aware of the devastating impact of genocide of my ancestors who were unable to make it to the United States. My grandmother lost four siblings, her parents and most of her aunts, uncles and cousins in the Nazi death camps.

     I have always been proud to have the freedoms provided by being a citizen of the United States. I have supported and fought for civil rights of others and against injustice. My parents taught me to speak my mind, to cherish the right to vote and to accept the results of elections even when my candidate lost. Following the last election, I first took a wait and see approach. When I began to worry about the transition, I joined groups, made phone calls to congressmen, sent post cards to elected officials, demonstrated in NYC and at the Women's March in DC, and posted a few Facebook posts more privately. Even though I did these things, in many ways it felt like it could have been as anonymous as attending an AA meeting. I have been in a quandary as a clinical psychologist and author about daring to write and speak my mind more openly. These fears have been engendered by the current president and the Republican Party members bullying and challenging their opponents to simply "get over it." This is not due to being "sore losers." It is due to genuine fears of the tactics being used to undermine democratic safeguards and to destroy institutions designed to promote checks and balances in a democracy.

   Something changed for me since the Muslim Travel Ban was imposed. I spent the weekend with my husband, brother and two sisters-in-law in Vermont. The retreat had been planned since December and I was looking forward to a reprieve from post election stress. When the news broke about the Muslim Ban, I was shocked and upset to see the events unfold across the nation and around the world. We talked, commiserated, and tried to come up democratic solutions to resolve the state of affairs. We sang songs Saturday night hoping it would provide some therapeutic relief. However, even songs that had nothing to do with politics seemed to take on new meanings as we tried to cope with the madness unfolding across our great nation. 

     Perhaps having the support of family as we tried to cope with the constant barrage of the new president and the GOP’s plans to create chaos in our society helped me find the strength to speak up. In addition, an article I read online caught my attention also gave me courage. As a psychologist, I feel compelled to help the public understand how the invasion of privacy and misuse of personal psychological information by the Republican Party is endangering the democratic process. Read on to learn more…

     Mind control and brainwashing are the unethical use of psychological information about prisoners or cult members to force them to accept the actions or beliefs held by autocratic leaders unconditionally. These techniques are diametrically opposed to all democratic principles. While Americans were preparing to vote in the last election, a new variant of mind control, a targeted digital marketing strategy, was being used to sway American citizens combined with repeated fake news to misinform them.

     Normally, you need permission to administer any psychological test. Once results are obtained, it is illegal to share results without your permission. The technique of targeted propaganda used by the GOP was exposed in the rather lengthy article which caught my attention last week. It may not have been understood or even read by average readers who do not understand psychology or research as well as I do due to my training as a psychologist. However, it is important for every citizen, Republican or Democrat to understand how it works and the implications for the future of democracy.

     First, the Republican campaign did not inform anyone that they were doing psychological assessments based on their Facebook likes. After they assessed people's personalities, they did not ask for consent to utilize the results of the personality test. Instead, they used the assessment to make predictions and assumptions about you . Finally, the information they gathered was used to target your social media stream with political propaganda. they sent you and me posts targeted in a way to obtain the highest level of persuasion possible. It works in a similar way that subliminal advertising or gas lighting techniques work. 

     Subliminal advertising has been illegal in many countries and is discouraged by the FCC in our nation. Subliminal advertising sends out brief images that are displayed for milliseconds, so that you are unconscious of the fact that they have appeared on the screen. Research found that this form of advertising works when someone is leaning towards buying the product advertised. With this form of advertising, a picture of popcorn was displayed for a millisecond on the screen in the middle of the movie. If you were not hungry, you might not buy pop corn, but if you were hungry, you might get up and buy popcorn. Gas lighting was used by Nazi leaders. Simply put, by repeating lies and false facts over and over, people began to question their judgement, feel like they are going crazy and begin to believe the lies promoted by the Nazi government. 

     The new digital technique uses your psychological profiling to target you, an unsuspecting internet user. The targeted ads were based on your personality profile which was obtained secretly without your consent. For instance, if your profile revealed that you were a blue collar disgruntled potential voter who believed in the right to bear arms, the targeted ad might warn you that the democrats were planning to take away your guns. If your personality test identified you as a Black middle aged woman who tends to be Democratic in your beliefs, the Republicans knew they might not be able to turn you into a Republican voter. They would send you messages that would deter you from voting for Hillary using fake news. 

     In this way, repetitive fake news stories and images were appearing on users news feeds, misinforming voters. In subtle ways, the posts may have been able to push people to vote one way or another. These digital invasions of your privacy may have impacted on you even if you were a Democrat who normally would have voted for Hillary. Since the invasion was done without your knowledge, you may not have even realized it impacted on your choosing how to or even whether or not to go to the polls on election day. 

     It you were a Republican the ads may have blinded you to things the Republican candidate did that normally would have outraged you. The Republican Party was not only rigging the election, they were lying and controlling the minds of people in the same way that the birther lies were spread. The misinformation led to people becoming fearful, not liking Hillary, even though they had no clear reason to back up their feelings about her. 

     The false stories spread in this way are not only an abuse of power, they are extremely dangerous. It led to an armed attack of a Pizza parlor in Washington DC, when a misguided individual crossed state lines allegedly to protect children from a bogus conspiracy theory about Hillary promoted by these kinds of fake news items. This new form of mind control, may be the reason that although the Republican candidate, now our president touted that “He could shoot somebody and not lose votes,”people continued to support him. That may be why when he was caught boasting about groping women because he could, people made excuses for him or did not believe it was abusive behavior unsuited to a leader of our nation.

     I believe that knowledge empowers us. Democracy will not survive if we are misinformed. An educated electorate is essential to the health of our great nation. If the Republican Party continues to secretly use personality profiles to try to control the minds of unsuspecting citizens or tries to silence and criticizes anyone (whether it be private citizens, Democratic Senators (#LetLizSpeak) and Congressmen, the news media or our judiciary branch) who has opposing views to that of our current president, Democracy will be in serious danger.  The misuse of psychological data to influence people without their consent is contrary to the basic human rights provided by the Constitution and will take us down the path of fascism and dictatorial control of our freedom. Contact your senators and congressmen, Facebook and other social media sites and demand that this kind of psychological targeting, gas lighting and fake news must be stopped.

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