There is nothing that defines us as human so much as free will.
It is our birthright, exercised from the very first time we’re able to form the word “no”. And it is curtailed, for the first time, when that same word is thrown back at us.
Life is a careful balance between the exercise and limitation of the will. Ideally, each individual lives to pursue their own happiness, but without inhibiting the pursuits of others. At best, each person actually helps others in these endeavors, creating a web of pursued happiness that elevates the whole of society.
But ours is not an ideal world.
The will is sometimes not limited when it should be, and even more often, it is unfairly limited when it should be free.
The latter issue looms as the latest presidential election draws near. The biggest contributors?
Misuse of Data, buzzwords, and misinformation.
These are the impediments we’ll all be facing in our quest to exercise our free will—impediments which give us an illusion of choice, while simultaneously taking that choice away. But knowledge is power, and power grants control. So let’s take a look at these issues and take back a measure of voting freedom.
The Truth Isn’t Always True
Data seems straightforward. It’s merely raw information, after all, and information is reality, right?
Well, not quite. Information is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used in a variety of ways.
Think on this. Clear Channel Outdoor Americas has partnered with AT&T to produce billboards capable of tracking people’s travel patterns through their mobile devices. They’ll know where you go, and combined with other ways in which you use your device, will likely know why, as well.
So if a company knows that a majority of people enjoy traveling to cafes in the evening to order a nice cup of earl grey tea, you may soon see a politician doing that very thing in a commercial, in order to foster a sense of familiarity and encourage an “ah, they’re just like us” moment.
Data is used not only to track our physical actions, but to manipulate our emotions, as well. For one week in January of 2012, Facebook performed an experiment in emotional string-pulling.
In this experiment, which encompassed about 700,000 users, some users were had their feeds manipulated so that only the most positive content and words were given priority. Others were blasted with negative content and keywords. Facebook did this not by manipulating content, but simply by omitting the positive or the negative. They still showed the truth—the same news articles, the same posts and words that were true to their sources— but only showed the truths which would lead users to feel a certain way.
By the end of the week, Facebook had analyzed the results; these manipulated users had much higher incidences of posting correspondingly negative or positive keywords. Facebook had purposefully taken over their emotions. And that emotion was contagious. Emotional posts begat similarly emotional posts amongst friend groups.
Be aware that the truth can be used in a deliberately misleading way. Just because a certain set of numbers are thrown onscreen, or because certain narrative are highly visible doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to be investigated. Scientists, as Ian Malcolm, the fictional chaos theorist of Jurassic Park fame says, are “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Always be willing to learn and look at both sides of an issue, and you’ll have the information you require to truly exercise your free will and choose.
Buzzwords Oversimplify Our Lives
In election seasons, buzzwords are a plague. They’re labels—bigot, communist, liar, xenophobe, criminal, presidential, and so on. If you’re a supporter of one party, you’re a “moron,” and if you support the other, you’re an “idiot”. People are defined as “terrifying, scary,” or “chilling”.
Here’s a tip: disregard any single word that claims to encompass the entirety of a person or organization.
Each buzzword is a neatly wrapped package. They’re a way for us to easily digest a complex human being, reducing them down to a set of presuppositions. And often, those presuppositions are wrong.
Not considering the entirety of a political candidate robs you of true choice. The “bigot” may be more caring than you think, and the “crook” may end up more honest than you can imagine. These aren’t caped heroes and mustache-twirling villains, after all. Presidential candidates are just as complex as you and I.