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.

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Costa-Rica as a role model for humanity

The ultimate goal of public policy in the 21st century may be expressed in very simple terms: ensure good living conditions to the population – while respecting the 9 environmental planetary boundaries that set limits to our production and consumption (climate change; rate of biodiversity loss; interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading). Is this goal achievable? The answer is yes, because it has already been achieved by one country: Costa-Rica. The good news is: this achievement is the outcome of deliberate policies, not of mere chance.

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The shareholders aren’t any more the most legitimate to govern companies

Source of data in the image: World Bank, stocks traded, turnover ratio of traded shares.

When asked about who should govern companies, the most obvious answer seems to be: the shareholders. And the reason: because they are the owners. Period. Debate closed. Recent discussions about the increased role of other stakeholders, be they the workers, representatives of external interests such as those of the environment or of suppliers, are seen like nice add-ons, little more than an inflexion to a generally valid rule.

I disagree, and believe that the role of the shareholders in the governance of companies should be radically reconsidered.

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Collapse of cod fishing around Newfoundland (Canada): a metaphor for our unsustainable and over-confident societies?

(Picture: Total capture of North Atlantic cod, from 1950 to 2000, in thousands of tonnes. Graphic by Epipelagic — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19281989)

For over 500 years, fishermen from Canada, but also from Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Germany) had been fishing the abundant banks of North Atlantic cod around Newfoundland in Canada. Pierre Loti, in his novel “an Iceland fisherman” published in 1886, describes the “myriads upon myriads of fish, all alike, gliding slowly in the same direction”, which could be seen immediately below the surface of the sea, “plainly distinguished through the transparency”, and illustrates the fantastic plenty of these cod banks, where fishermen just needed to drop their lines, see the cod biting the hooks, haul the lines, take the cod off the hooks, and throw the lines over and over again. A fisherman’s dream, explaining why boats travelled from Europe, thousands of kilometres across the Ocean, to participate in this bounty.

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A cause of “populism”: the mismatch between the scale of political action and that of underlying phenomena

Let’s take “populists” seriously. Let’s listen to them. They want to “take control back”. They feel that democratic institutions at national scale have lost the capacity to act on the collective future of the population.  My argument is: they are right in this statement – but wrong in their solutions.

What are the important political decisions? Those addressing large-scale, long-term issues, such as global warming, international trade, or the taxation of multi-national corporations. Where are they taken? In the secrecy and unaccountability of inter-governmental negotiations, in the United Nations, bi-lateral negotiations of free trade agreements, in the G20 or in the Council of the European Union.

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