Just Imagine…Microtargeting a Jury

June 24, 2021

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Imagine the following fictional case. Andre is being tried in federal court on charges of money laundering. The case is mostly circumstantial. Normally prosecutors wouldn’t even take a case like this to trial, but they hoped that Andre would flip and provide leads to bigger targets related to domestic terrorism funded by money laundering. Imagine the story were to unfold as follows, which is based on existing technical capacities but not on existing prosecutorial practices.

To ensure the result they wanted, the prosecutors decided to microtarget the jury. Using data mining of social media, public records, and federal databases, they were able to create personal profiles of each juror. With these profiles, the technology staff in the US Attorney’s office fed misinformation to sites visited by each juror. The misinformation was selected by a behavioral science team with expertise in the strategic use of information and misinformation to shape opinions. The information was designed to be subtle enough that none of the jurors would realize that they were being manipulated to find Andre guilty.

The process was successful. Andre was found guilty. Before sentencing, he provided additional information to reduce his sentence. That information eventually led to the arrest and conviction of members of a terrorist group. In addition, he was able to help them trace the source of the laundered funds back to a rival nation.

Was the use of microtargeting an invasion of Andre’s right to a fair trial? Most people would say “yes.” Was the use of microtargeting vital to the protection of those who were being threatened by the terrorists? As it turned out, the answer also seems to be “yes.” Was the microtargeting an invasion of the fundamental principles of our democracy? That’s a question that our society must answer.

Advances in technology have the potential to erode our democratic principles. These same advances can be used to negate the actions of those who want to destroy our democracy. The use of technology often brings to light issues that have yet to be addressed by our system of government.

Just imagine how we might balance the good and bad aspects of technology as it affects our democracy. How do you personally weigh the way technology was used to microtarget jurors to persuade them to convict Andre? How should we assess the morality of the means we use to reach just ends? How might our democracy keep up with advances in technology to assure that its uses do not violate fundamental democratic principles? Just imagine the future challenges that such technology may impose upon the basic principles of our democracy.

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Any powerful technology can be abused. –Eric Drexler, an American engineer known for his work on nanotechnology

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.

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