Feeding the reptile or promoting the human in us: why political communication is not morally neutral, and how to improve it (1/2)

Social medium Facebook and “big data” firm Cambridge Analytica have broken the news in March 2018 when their methods of political manipulation in the electoral campaign of Donald Trump in 2016 were made public. Why is it that the revelations on the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica affair appear morally so unacceptable?

I would like here to suggest a method, based on the well-established layer-based model of the human brain, to trace a moral distinction between tools used in political communication.

The American neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean1 (1913 – 2007) evidenced that the human brain contains three systems, each inherited from a stage in the evolution of our species. He calls this the ‘triune’ model of the brain, made of: (1) the ‘reptilian‘, managing automatic responses to stimuli, such as fear, hunger, pain, and dedicated to immediate self-preservation; (2) the ‘old mammalian‘, managing emotions that relate the individual to others, such as love and anger; and (3) the specifically human ‘new mammalian’, managing verbal interactions and rationality.

Communication in general, and political communication in particular, can target either one of these three layers:

  1. the drives of the reptile
  2. the emotions of the “old mammalian”
  3. the reasoning and verbal interactions of the human.

Targeting the reptilian brain of a human is easy and the outcomes are highly predictable, because they are so deeply ingrained in our neurological system. When doing so, the human is considered like nothing more than a blunt stimulus – response machine. I interpret this mode of communication as the expression of a deep despise of humans. This despise of human beings is epitomised in the self-justifying belief developed by persons torturing others, that humans behave like beasts. This is only true when these humans are submitted to such pain and hunger that nothing else than the reptilian brain operates. I consider this despise of humans, in torture as in the deliberate manipulation of the reptilian brain, as morally unacceptable.

Targeting the “old mammalian” brain, and specifically positive emotions such as love, compassion or empathy can trigger the highest moral behaviours of altruism and generosity. However, the “old mammalian” brain can also be targeted in political communication for other, less palatable emotions, such as hate, despise or anger. I consider it thus a tool to be used with caution.

Targeting the specifically human “new mammalian” brain is in my views the expression of the moral value given to humans, as conscious subjects endowed with reason as proposed by the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century and Immanuel Kant specifically, able to engage in moral actions and in the “ethics of discussion” promoted by Jürgen Habermas as the model for democracy. For all these reasons, I consider this mode of communication as being the one with the highest moral value.

How do these different modes of communication, towards one layer of the brain or the other, materialise in practice? I see at least two areas of reflection, and potentially of public policy: (1) on the content, and (2) on the technical medium.

Regarding content, the bad example of explicitly targeting fear, is given by Mark Turnbull, the Chief Data Officer of Cambridge Analytica, as disclosed in the secret filming interview performed by British Channel 4 television journalists:

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what those really deep-seated underlying fears and concerns are. It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion.

I can anticipate what your mental vulnerabilities are. What cognitive biases might you display in certain situations.

The good example is given by the ancient Greek and Latin methods of rhetoric, the art of convincing with transparent methods and rational arguments. A speech following these methods typically consisted of 4 parts:

  1. the exordium, the introduction to awaken the attention of the audience, and to expose what the intention of the speaker is: to convince the audience of a given thesis
  2. the narratio, exposing the facts and introducing the set of arguments
  3. the confirmatio, exposing the arguments supporting the thesis
  4. the peroration, wrapping up the arguments and inspiring action.

At each stage, the intention of the speaker is clear, and what argument or fact s/he uses is announced. At the end, the audience is expected to have been convinced, i.e. to have changed its mind in full consciousness of having done so, knowing why, and with no reason to regret.

In addition, as mentioned by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, the ancient Greeks had stringent rules regarding the content of a speech, and specifically that it was not allowed to be off-topic.

If we were to transpose these prescriptions into current regulation, it could take the following form:

  • obligation to inform the recipient of political communication about (1) who speaks, representing what interests; (2) what is the thesis of which the recipient is intended to be convinced; (3) the values, beliefs and norms that the emitter believes that the recipient has, and that the emitter will target to convince;
  • prohibition from associating irrelevant content with the discussion of the topic.

Regarding now the technical medium… (to be continued)

1PD MacLean, The triune brain in evolution: role in paleocerebral functions, Plenum, New York, N.Y., 1990.

Author: Sergio Arbarviro

My competences are originally those of an engineer – but I have been making incursions, for quite some time now, into several other fields, such as economics, politics, psychology, social sciences and history. I am the initator of the CosmoPolitical Cooperative, a cooperative for social, economic and political transformation, supporting the transition to a just, sustainable and happy society.