• Reilly Neill

Voter Manipulation and Violation of Privacy

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Over the last few years, an in-depth podcast, “Pretend” has endeavored to examine the many stories of the fakes and frauds among us. Some of the stories are sinister and some banal. A common theme is people running cons and exploiting unsuspecting individuals.

If one reads even a few chapters of “Bootstrapping Your Business: Start and Grow a Company with Almost No Money” by Greg Gianforte and British right-wing “business editor” Marcus Gibson, the reader may sense something amiss when learning about the creation of Gianforte’s business empire.

The book suggests a confidence game as a business model.

When Gianforte lays out his initial business plan for RightNow in “Bootstrapping,” it follows nearly every aspect of a conman’s playbook illustrated in the numerous podcast episodes I’ve heard on "Pretend," some almost word-for-word.

Although I cannot recommend the work in its entirety and have serious concerns about the ethics of co-author (and pro-Brexit climate denier) Marcus Gibson, this brief excerpt from “Bootstrapping” reveals how Gianforte started his business with nothing but his wits:

"Conventional thinking would have you believe that unless you have a product, preferably polished and very complete, you have no business. In fact the very opposite is true…”

When Greg Gianforte moved out here from New Jersey, just what kind of business did he start in Montana without a tested product? We often hear of the “Montana job creation” in Gianforte’s business efforts but what were these employees doing? The answer is usually “tech jobs” and the technology is noted as CRM or customer relationship management.

What is CRM? A modern online dictionary defines the platform as “an approach to manage a company’s interaction with current and potential customers.” CRM involves using data analysis to improve “business relationships with customers.” In other words, spying on people (whether they consent or not), gathering and distilling their data and then selling the data to corporations (or political parties) to use as high-level micro-targeted marketing to current and potential customers to ensure customer retention and drive sales growth.

This business model is how Gianforte built his business and political brand in Montana and many in the Montana GOP bought the con hook, line and sinker. The media should be investigating the methods used to build RightNow and incidences in the business of what is termed unethical or "dark side behavior" which mirrors some of the systems in use by Russian hackers to manipulate the 2016 election via social media.

Dark side behavior in CRM is information misuse such as selling or making available personal information to other groups to essentially remove choice for consumers in the marketplace and drive profits. CRM systems are notorious for this behavior. There are no ethical constraints to exploiting citizens other than self-policing in CRM and since most citizens have no idea what this technology is, the systems routinely exploit them for profit and now more than ever, political influence.

If Gianforte is so good at customer service, at catering to customer’s needs, how in 2019 can he run successful campaigns as a candidate when he believes the earth is only a few thousand years old, evolution is a hoax and women should be subservient to men? This is man who self-admittedly believes dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time and funds a museum dedicated to this belief while disregarding modern science and physics, a man who body-slammed a private citizen, a journalist who asked him, a potential public representative, a question in public.

His success is simple. Gianforte has enough money to target voters specifically with what they want to hear. He's built an empire on this technology. He knows exactly how to tell the ones most likely to vote for him what they want to hear in order to facilitate "brand loyalty" and "customer retention."

This kind of subversive marketing should be as illegal as subliminal advertising because it's worse. It's not random, it's subliminal advertising that is targeted and catered to the individual's preferences.

Gianforte could shoot a man on Center Street in Great Falls and the voters would still re-elect him at this point because his thinks his marketing is so tight, and his hold over people's private preferences so complete he can do anything. Sound familiar?

Industrial psychology has been used to manipulate consumers for centuries but in today's market, we have the ability to know the consumer inside-out. But voters are not consumers regardless of the manipulation of their confirmation bias. Communities have needs, not just wants.

Manipulating the psychology of the populace to elevate oneself and one ideology above others is unethical and truly the “dark side behavior” in CRM that makes the concept a threat to our privacy and freedom as individuals.

Using "customer service management" as a front for data mining that views individuals as “renewable resources” instead of human beings is not a winning strategy for any successful business or democracy.

In the CRM fashion of marketing, "consumers" have no idea what methods are being used to collect their personal data (general info, habits, purchasing history) or how their personal data is constantly being sold, distilled and resold. At the least, this technology undermines our privacy and right to choice in the marketplace.

Enabling communication, providing timely feedback, analysis of customer information and providing customized product offerings are some of the valid benefits of CRM technology. A busy dentist's office could utilize customer feedback to improve services, for example. But the current utopian view or “knowledge management nirvana” of CRM provides that those using the system are voluntarily being accountable for the "ethical" gathering and selling of personal data of unsuspecting citizens and always avoidant of the financial incentive to use this data to exploit citizens.

This utopian view fails to incorporate the ethical issues, namely the underlying methods and motives for the use and impact of CRM systems on individuals and society. Whether tracking your television habits, your spending at a grocery chain, your online browsing history, even information from State and Federal agencies, companies can profit from this information and, in some cases, even remove choice and unfairly penalize citizens to increase profit margins.

Congressman Greg Gianforte (and also Senator Steve Daines) have built empires on this technology.

As noted, caregivers in the medical field, for example, use CRM to provide customized service for patients. Researchers found that CRM in the healthcare industry enhances service quality, increases patient satisfaction, and increases mutual benefit. Managers in the banking sector use CRM systems to target profitable customers, integrate across channels, improve customer service, increase sales force effectiveness, coordinate marketing messages, increase employees’ motivation, improve decision making, and customize products.

Does the free market thrive in environments where a company can acquire vast information about an individual to better serve them and improve efficiency in the organization? Or does CRM violate our privacy and strain ethical boundaries in marketing?

For an organization to engage in true CRM dark side behavior, they must deliberately take unfair advantage of customers using CRM data.

Examples of dark side behavior in consumer data use are common and often very effective financially for companies. People may not know when they are being monitored due to the small size of devices that can be integrated almost everywhere now and are known as the Internet of Things (IoT). New types of data can be collected due to the endless possibilities of integration. The possibility of aggregation of such data can lead to individual identification and linkage to other personal records in the hands of those who can sell the information to the highest bidder.

Companies tend to use data in ways their customers disapprove of or sell such data to so called “third-party companies” without the knowledge of the user. More often than not, in privacy policies it’s not stated who such third-party companies are but companies routinely benefit from the collected information on their clients and tailor their offerings based on the client’s economic attractiveness.

This technology is dangerous and the practice undermines the theory of free will and participatory citizenship in a democracy. Although there may be valid benefits, citizens lose the ability to make individual choices based on a full range of options when micro-targeted using their own data.

Markets can now be surveyed and consumer behavior analyzed in such a detailed way that corporations achieve what has been unachievable before in marketing: they can turn the consumer’s interior inside out and see exactly how to manipulate their purchasing (and now political) behavior.

Dark side behavior on behalf of CRM systems presents misleading or confusing information and/or the hiding of relevant information from customers, which can encourage customers to make decisions that disadvantage them, especially when used in political marketing.

Utilizing CRM, corporations and political parties are successful in walling off individuals so they are not exposed to other sources. This aggressive segmenting and manipulating of the “consumer” population is not ethical. No longer are corporations using marketing technology to simply gather your grocery card data and push Coca-Cola and Tide detergent in targeted markets, they are peddling politics and ideology with brand awareness. Because the public is ignorant of this practice, they have no defenses against this technology. This is a dangerous misuse of art, communication, technology and computer science and it must be addressed.

We should start with one of the modern founders of CRM, a man who started his business by running a con on potential customers by hawking a then-nonexistent software. Greg Gianforte’s con resulted in the exponential proliferation of spyware without any consideration of ethical boundaries. If he had any true leadership ability, his ethical standards would not permit him to wield power over an unsuspecting populace in order to exploit them.

The whole theory of caveat emptor (buyer beware) is invalid when when the buyer cannot be aware, when the buyer is simply a citizen not particularly interested in purchasing anything.

Individuals across this country and around the world are being spied on and mined for personal information in order to be exploited. This reality appears to be largely ignored by American media, who are likely doing some targeting of their own, but is addressed by academic sources over the course of decades in a variety of papers and discussions.

We should start paying attention to who is watching us. How are we being microtargeted by corporations and governments around the world? How does this effect our everyday life, our liberty and our democracy?

Around 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020 and this connection has the potential to create an added economic value globally of around 10-15 trillion dollars by 2030. Will Montanans be in this number exploited by corporations or instead a positive voice on the ground for the needs of our communities - free of manipulated bias?

I put no trust in Greg Gianforte to lead our state in these times. His very foundation is exploitative business and even vocally aligned with a brutal dictator, Vladimir Putin in Russia. We need a leader to represent the interests of America and Montana, not a foreign country, in the office of Governor.

I urge voters, citizens, consumers and the media to pull back the curtain on dark side practices in CRM marketing and expose the propaganda that is now poisoning our democracy for what it really is: a con.

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