The Bad Habit of Willful Ignorance: Cognitive Bias in Political Advertising and Communication

Today we release our third paper, "Cognitive Bias in Political Advertising and Communication."

On Monday, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School released a paper by Donna Brazile in which she examines the cyber-literacy of political campaigns in 2018. This work provides some active context for our Dark Matter project. Part of that examination comes by way of surveying political operatives and campaign managers from both sides of the aisle:

The survey of nearly forty Republican and Democratic campaign operatives, administered through November and December 2017, revealed that American political campaign staff -- primarily working at the state and congressional levels -- are not only unprepared for possible cyber attacks, but remain generally unconcerned about the threat. The survey sample was relatively small, but nevertheless the survey provides a first look at how campaign managers and staff are responding to the threat.

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not want to devote campaign resources to cybersecurity or to hire personnel to address cybersecurity issues. Even though campaign managers recognize there is a high probability that campaign and personal emails are at risk of being hacked, they are more concerned about fundraising and press coverage than they are about cybersecurity. Less than half of those surveyed said they had taken steps to make their data secure and most were unsure if they wanted to spend any money on this protection.

As you might guess, we find these results distressing, but not surprising. InfoSec titan Bruce Schneier echoes our sentiments almost exactly:

Security is never something we actually want. Security is something we need in order to avoid what we don't want. It's also more abstract, concerned with hypothetical future possibilities. Of course it's lower on the priorities list than fundraising and press coverage. They're more tangible, and they're more immediate.

This is all to the attackers' advantage.

Ironically, the poor decision-making on display by the political professionals represented in this survey is a textbook example of cognitive bias at work.

Download our papers in PDF form: 
#3: Cognitive Bias in Political Advertising and Communication
#2: Dark Matter: April Update
#1: Dark Matter: Computational Propaganda Risk in the 2018 Election Cycle