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Japan Political Pulse: What next for voter manipulation tactics as virus changes campaigns

Donald Trump, whose campaign was staffed by alumni of voter manipulation firm Cambridge Analytica Ltd, is seen in this file photo during his first campaign for U.S. president, at a gathering in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 1, 2016. (Mainichi/Shinichiro Nishida)

I was shocked by the news that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had rejected six new candidates for appointment to the Science Council of Japan, but what shocked me more was the gulf in the way different newspapers covered the story.

    The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo Chunichi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun all filled the prime or second slot of their front pages with articles critical of the government's interference in the scholar group. But the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Nikkei and the Sankei Shimbun relegated the story to factual reports in the second or third articles of their city news or domestic policy pages.

    People's impression of events is altered by what media source individuals learn about them from. While this fact also reflects the way in which society has become fractured, it also shows that the media people come into contact with has the capacity to change their way of thinking.

    There was a company which, based on experiments that showed voter behavior changed depending on the information they received, found ways to control elections to lead them to the results they were aiming for. It was the UK-based Cambridge Analytica Ltd (CA), which is said to have facilitated wins for both Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and in the U.K. EU Referendum of the same year that saw the country choose to leave the bloc.

    But its means were dishonest, and behind the scenes it obtained the personal information of some 87 million people from social media firm Facebook. CA used micro targeting, in which it narrowed down its targets to people it thought likely to vote for the party desired by the company, to deliver customized data to their social media feeds that would incite their anger and discontent, and thereby encourage them to go out and vote.

    "Mindf*ck," a 2019 account by Christopher Wylie, born in 1989, who helped build CA's system as a director of research, and later went on to become a whistleblower who regretted his antisocial actions, was published in Japanese in September by Shinchosha. There is also an expository book by Brittany Kaiser, former director of business development at CA and subject of the Netflix documentary "The Great Hack." But Wylie's book, written as it is by a person with a technical understanding of the manipulation of online public opinion, is extremely detailed on the subject.

    I'll pull out one anecdote from Wylie's book. Steve Bannon, who was a close adviser to President Donald Trump in the early days of his administration, worked with CA before Trump's election win. There, he and Wylie researched how the delivery of information could control the way people vote.

    One point of interest for them was using their ideas on American people who felt stifled by antiracism, antisexism and other forms of politically correct thought, who felt it was unfair to be lectured or laughed at by the liberal elite -- voters holding on to anger and dissatisfaction.

    Using these tactics, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. His race for reelection also takes on the form of a battle between liberals and those against such policies.

    Similar events can be seen in Japan. The more that liberal groups criticize from a position of superiority the policies and governing styles of conservative administrations, the more fevered the pushback against liberal ideas becomes.

    Former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka once said that "there are only as many votes as there are hands shaken." But now in the age of the coronavirus, handshakes are out, and gatherings don't go as we intend for them to. The environment involving elections in Japan is also changing sharply, creating room for tactics like those used by CA to fill the void.

    What CA does is use big data to create voter guidance, and the company self-destructed due to its focus on profit and its lack of ethical considerations. Facebook is a collaborator posing as a victim, and at the end of his book Wylie calls for stronger regulations against huge IT firms.

    Discussion in newspapers on the issue is divided. Information online is fragmented, and appears on screen based on the interests of individuals users. We all need to understand what the characteristics of the media we use are. While issues concerning a digitized society relate to an easing of regulations, there is no doubt that regulations that protect the safety of societal infrastructure need strengthening.

    (Japanese original by Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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