Pursuadables: the undecided majority that threaten the end of democracy as we know it


Yesterday, I watched The Great Hack on Netflix, a movie about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Believe me, if you weren’t already, you’re guaranteed to become paranoid by the end of the film.

Incredible how much these guys were able to tease out of a bunch of seemingly harmless data. How about a detailed personality profile of every single voter in America, including a comprehensive list of hos or her preferences and perversions? But what really worries me is how they can analyze how influenceable we are.

I also learned a new word: “pursuadables”. It describes a segment of the population that are essentially fence-sitters and therefore easy to manipulate in one direction or the other. They are the undecided majority of people who don’t really care much about the big issues, usually fail to turn up at the voting booth, but who, if you push their buttons right, can get fired up enough to cast their vote for whomever the manipulators want them to. Given that most democratic societies are split down the middle politically, all you need to do is mobilize three or four percent of them to push elections in any desired direction.

Why go after people who hold strong convictions? You probably can’t influence them anyway, or if so only at horrendous costs. Try for the undecideds – the pursuadables. They are the low-hanging fruit of those wishing to corrupt the democratic process.

In the movie was directed by Karim Amer, who famously documented the Arab Spring uprising at Cairo’s Tahir Square, and Jehane Noujaim, another American documentary film director born in Egypt who is best known for her films Control Room, Startup.com, and , the latter of which earned her a nomination for an Academy Award. It tells the story of how CA changed history by altering the outcomes of both the last U.S. presidential race and the Brexit referendum in the UK. Okay, that much I knew before, at least vaguely. What I didn’t know that these guys had their grubby little fingers in hundreds of democratic processes around the world. These were, one CA employee freely admits, we just priming exercises for the two really big one’s in 2016: Trump and Brexit!

The filmers carefully relate the story of the elections held in 2010 in Trinidad & Tobago, an island nation in the Caribbean populated by two equal-sized groups of people; the descendants of black slaves on one side, those of settlers from India on the other. Both groups hate each other, but the blacks had been in power for more than a decade, busily passing laws that discriminated against those with Indian roots. The opposition party UNC brought in CA, and the result was a perfidious scheme entitled “DO SO” which aimed at persuading young blacks, many of whom weren’t much interested in politics anyway but distrusted all politicians as essentially corrupt and power-mad, to stay home on voting day as a form of protest. By the time the polls closes, voter turnout had been a mere 60 percent, the UNC had won a landslide 27 of 41 seats in parliament, and the incumbent (black) party PNM was out!

I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but all this used to sound like bad science-fiction to me. After all, in order to influence an entire election would require hundreds of millions of tweets, newsfeeds, YouTube videos and social media postings, so at least some of them should have turned up sooner or later on my screen, shouldn’t they? My Facebook page and Twitter account should be bursting with fake news, but for some reason they didn’t. In fact, my corner of the social web usually yields stuff I generally agree with.

Now I know why: I’m not persuadable! CA and all the other manipulators have looked at my data and determined that I am a firmly entrenched liberal social democrat. That’s how I grew up in the stormy 60ies, railing against Americans fighting in Vietnam, smoking pot and potting policemen with stones during student demonstrations against just about anything to do with the establishment. Later, when I had settled down, I adored such larger-than-life figures as Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, stalwart social democrats to a man. In fact, one of the most treasured moments in my life was having a long lunch with Schmidt and his wife Lokki at a restaurant in Las Palmas where I had been asked to introduce him as the keynote speaker at a big conference hosted by Siemens.

Yes, I believe unshakably in liberal socialism, and I detest the matchstick people who run the parties today that carry an “S” in their names, but who don’t have the faintest idea what real social democracy is like. They could send me all the mails and tweets they want and I wouldn’t give a good goddamn – and so they don’t even try!

If they were organized, non-voters would be the biggest political party in most developed countries. In the U.S., just as in Germany and Austria, where I now live, a third of voters stay at home on election day. During the last European elections earlier this year, voter turnout actually grew slightly, reaching 61.4 percent. If Germany’s neo-nazi AfD or Marie Le Pen’s Front National had been able to turn just ten percent of these abstainers by getting them all worked up over some fictional scandal or faked set of facts, Europe would now be governed by the crackwing right!

If you, dear reader, haven’t done so already, please watch The Great Hack – and be afraid, be very afraid! Liberal democracy as we know it is in mortal danger of being subverted by those who own and operate the data mills. And the greatest threat of all comes from those who can’t make up their minds – until someone else makes their minds up for them.

Tim Cole


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