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behavioral targeting is not democracy (!)

September 8, 2010

The NY Times recently carried a piece on the use of online behavioral tracking by major mainstream newspapers. The basic question is, to what extent should news outlets use behavioral data to shape their news coverage and editorial policy? Three examples – the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times – are cited. While there are differences in the details (including the LA Times’ use of a ridiculous sounding “personality quiz”), the general ethos seems to be that behavioral data can and should be used to determine the choice of media (text, video, audio, etc.) and format of presentation, but it should not influence the paper’s editorial judgment regarding what is newsworthy, norms of objectivity, etc.

This balance strikes me as reasonable, but also worrisome. Despite their professed caution, these papers are edging further down a slippery slope toward outright pandering for market share. Frustratingly, the NY Times article pours even more grease onto that already slippery slope when it equates behavioral targeting with democracy. Here’s the objectionable bit, with emphasis added:

Looking to the public for insight on how to cover a topic is never comfortable for newsrooms, which have the deeply held belief that readers come to a newspaper not only for its information but also for its editorial judgment. But many newsrooms now seem to be re-examining that idea and embracing, albeit cautiously, a more democratic approach to serving up the news, particularly online.

In what way is it “more democratic” for a business to track customer behavior in order to refine a product? Based on which definition of democracy? If Mercedes Benz were to survey its customers and redesign its dashboard gauges based on their preferences, would we consider that to be more democratic? Democratic for who – the people that can afford to buy a Mercedes? The people who end up buying the redesigned Mercedes, whether they took part in the survey or not? It seems a bit silly to think of that as democratic, and it should seem equally silly in the case of newspapers. To begin, we have not yet overcome significant issues of online access, aka the “Digital Divide”. I can surf the New York Times all day long with my “always on” high-speed internet connection, so I might indulge in a few otherwise non-essential articles – maybe A.O.Scott’s review of “The American” (too harsh) or a piece about a Republican operative in Arizona who recruited drifters to run as Green Party candidates (thus demonstrating the need for instant run-off voting). Should my lackadaisical preferences carry greater weight than those of a single, working parent with a half-hour at night to spend on their home dial-up connection? Or an impoverished person who relies on the public library for internet access?

Even if online access were more equitable, should we really consider behavioral tracking to be a catalyst of democracy? I understand democracy to be a deliberative decision-making process, in which participants are aware of the issues under consideration and have some idea of the range of outcomes available. Democracy also involves some system for allocating resources (votes, floor time, media access, etc.) to the participants in the decision-making process, and it defines a consistent and coherent set of rules for discussion. Behavioral targeting doesn’t come close to fulfilling these requirements. Participants are often not aware of the extent of their participation (if they are aware at all), nor the range of outcomes that they are “deciding”. Meanwhile, many of the terms under which they “make” those decisions are dictated by the manager of the web site.

One might argue that the NY Times merely meant to use the word “democratic” in a limited sense, meaning to invoke increased feedback or participation. Were there no larger context, I might begrudgingly tolerate such imprecision. But there is a larger context. For at least a full century now, US society has increasingly and carelessly equated the notion of consumer choice (ie. participation in a market economy) with political decision-making (ie. participation in a democratic society). By this logic, China is more democratic than the US because Chinese consumers can choose from a wider variety of exotic beverages. This erroneous conflation is a basic tenet of neoliberal economic theory and it has unfortunately shaped the hegemonic mindset of the last few decades. It’s disappointing to see the New York Times implicitly validate this mistake.

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