Building Better Consumers and Voters

By John Bandler

Today, we face a diverse array of threats to our information gathering and decision making. External forces try to influence our opinions and actions, sometimes with mild spin but sometimes dishonestly and maliciously. Government can do better exercising its authority against some of these threats, but that is a tricky area and we have great individual responsibilities. We need to become better consumers and voters and improve our resistance to marketing, propaganda, and disinformation.

Advertising and marketing to influence

Billions of dollars are spent on digital advertising and to learn about and influence Internet users like you. The goal is to target, serve ads, and influence. Each online view of a digital ad and each click on a link can be monetized, and a complex economy has evolved. Companies use a wide spectrum of digital advertising techniques to reach the consumer, build awareness of their brand, and increase sales. Many organizations do this properly, in compliance with laws and regulations. Some tiptoe over the line and violate regulations. Others commit outright fraud and deception. Consumers make many buying decisions, need a degree of protection and regulation from government, but also need to exercise responsibility and protect themselves.

Nation state propaganda

Nation states have long been in the business of public relations, propaganda, and disinformation. Before the Internet, it was a challenge for one country to reach and influence the population of another. They could drop leaflets, run a radio or TV network, or covertly influence the media and prominent citizens. Today they use digital tools and advertising techniques to meet this end. The internet can be used to sow propaganda, disinformation, discord, and division. Foreign powers can have covert influence in the daily lives of our population, and some foreign powers want to weaken and damage us, or tip the scales in favor of a friendly politician. Our government should not allow such meddling, nor any interference with our sovereignty and process of electing our own government. But again, we cannot simply rely upon our government to protect us from this threat.

Government is important but is not enough

Government plays an essential role protecting its citizens and residents from an array of harms and threats, domestic and foreign. Government even tries to protect us from ourselves – for example the requirement that we use our seatbelts in a car. The criminal justice system is government's attempt to protect us from the more grievous of harms committed by others. Civil laws and regulations provide mechanisms to address other improper conduct, including digital advertising conduct that might violate privacy regulations or other consumer protection rules. Our national defense, intelligence, and diplomacy functions are also essential for protecting our country's sovereignty and for deterring and responding to transgressions by foreign powers, including from their propaganda and disinformation.

But we cannot call upon government to protect us from all misinformation. Only in fascist, totalitarian countries does the government control the information stream. Here we value free speech and place limits on our government's ability to control expression. We cannot call on government to arbitrate the truth for us.

We need to do our part

We need a responsible citizenry and we cannot abdicate our individual role to be responsible consumers of information.

We need to build consumers who are resistant to marketing hype, who are aware of cybercrime, cybersecurity, and privacy threats. Choose companies that respect our privacy rights and that avoid dishonest hype. Be aware of the existing free tools that are available to protect our privacy, and employ them.

We need to build voters who are resistant to propaganda, disinformation, and political slogans. Voters who seek facts and apply reason, and choose ethical candidates who will put country interest over personal interest (and even over party interest). This gives us the best chance to select a government that will do their best to serve country and constituents. Simply put, if the candidate lacks morals or is utterly dishonest, their professed political position becomes less relevant. They will always put their personal interests first.

We need to build better consumers of news and media. Unfortunately, selling anger and outrage is profitable. It gains clicks, viewers, and readers. But facts, reason, and logic are the ingredients to make good decisions that are good for our country. We should not reward clickbait and soundbites at the expense of responsible journalism.

A free press

To obtain facts upon which to base important decisions we need a robust and free press. This free press is never going to be perfect, but will always be a counterweight to dishonesty, corruption, fascism, and authoritarianism. Beware of those who denigrate the value of a free press.

We can do better

We are all consumers and voters with duties. We should do our jobs diligently and carefully. This starts with seeking facts, not half-truths, angry rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. We can assess the reliability of a source. Then assess facts and apply logic to develop sound conclusions and opinions. We should make voting choices based upon facts and reason, not anger or fear. Give great weight to a candidate’s ethics, honesty, and decency, which may be more important than many individual political issues.

As always, this is not legal or consulting advice. Just thoughts on how our country can do better.

Additional reading

This article is hosted at https://johnbandler.com/building-better-consumers-and-voters. Copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.

This article is also available (though not kept as up to date) on Medium at https://johnbandler.medium.com/building-better-consumers-and-voters-680795e25f86

Posted 10/21/2020. Updated 04/10/2022.