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 dishonestly and maliciously. Government can do better exercising its authority against some of these threats, but we have individual responsibilities too. We need to become better consumers and voters and improve our resistance to marketing, propaganda, and disinformation.

Billions of dollars are spent on digital advertising and to learn about 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 complicated 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 protect themselves.

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. 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 make no mistake, some foreign powers want to weaken us. Our government should not allow such meddling, nor any interference with our sovereignty or process of electing our own government. But again, we cannot simply rely upon our government to protect us from this threat.

And government does play an essential role protecting its citizens and residents from an array of harms and threats, domestic and foreign. The criminal justice system is government's attempt to protect us from the most 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 essential for protecting our country's sovereignty and for deterring and responding to transgressions by foreign powers. Government even tries to protect us from ourselves – for example the requirement that we use our seatbelts in a car.

While government is important, we cannot assume it will always do what it is supposed to. And we always need to do our part.

We need to build consumers who are resistant to marketing hype, who are aware of cybercrime, cybersecurity, and privacy threats. Choose companies that avoid dishonest hype and respect our privacy rights. Be aware of the 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. 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 irrelevant. They will always put their personal interests first.

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 an enemy and counterweight to dishonesty, corruption, and authoritarianism.

In sum, as consumers and voters we should do our jobs diligently and carefully. Arm ourselves with facts, not half-truths, conspiracy theories, nor angry rhetoric. Use these facts to develop sound conclusions and opinions. Make voting choices based upon facts and reason, and realize the importance of a candidate’s level of ethics, honesty, and decency.

If you want to educate yourself to protect from privacy and cybercrime threats, consider my books, Cybersecurity for the Home and Office, and Cybercrime Investigations. If you want to learn about Voting for Ethics, see the book by the late Hana Callaghan at https://www.scu.edu/voting-for-ethics/.

This article is also available on Medium at https://johnbandler.medium.com/building-better-consumers-and-voters-680795e25f86

Posted 10/21/2020.