Georgia Tech

Modern Elections Start in Plato’s Cave

Nov 2, 2012 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Hans Klein

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Rebecca Keane  404-894-1720

A few weeks back, Hans Klein was a personal witness to the power of political persuasion.

“My nine-year-old daughter said in the most amazed tone of voice, ‘President Obama wrote me an email,’” he recalled.

The associate professor in the Ivan Allen College School of Public Policy knew that his daughter’s email address must have landed on some list targeted by campaigns and other groups (“she also receives American Express applications”), but he couldn’t bring himself to burst her bubble. He told her that it was pretty cool she got a note from the President.

Klein takes a different approach with his students. He estimates that he teaches about 540 students annually in various sections of his philosophy course “Science, Technology, and Human Values.” There, students discuss and question tactics used in media manipulation. ‘Manipulation’ has intrinsic negative connotations, but that’s not always the case in practice.

Look at canned TV laughter, for example.

“It’s social proof. If everyone else is doing it, it must be true,” said Klein. Hearing laughter creates an environment where we know it is safe to do the same.

Campaigns have long utilized marketing strategies during election seasons. Klein cited an Italian election where voters were lured with a free bag of pasta if they voted. In Venezuela, voter qualifications are some of the most minimal in the world, Klein said, because President Hugo Chavez is aware that his support comes from those in the country’s lowest economic rungs. This year’s United States presidential election has seen telemarketers asking people to describe their routes to their voting stations with the idea that simply thinking of the path in advance increases the likelihood of following it to the poll on Election Day.

“Mobilization takes many forms,” Klein said. When it comes to fighting voter fraud or providing voting access, Republicans choose to fight fraud and Democrats opt for more access. Leaning towards one approach or another could change the results of an election.

“You assume they will not, but it may or may not be true,” said Klein.

Say you do a search for pizza recommendations using the Google search engine. Yelp is a popular site for restaurant reviews, but Google owns Zagat, a similar service. Google is motivated to show you Zagat ratings before Yelp, even if it’s a less-trafficked site. The results are true, but the search engine is "biasing the resulting you're getting," said Klein.

To help students recognize the media framework in which we live, he first requires them to read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

“Technology has changed, but media hasn’t changed in 2,500 years,” Klein said. The shadows on Plato’s cave wall are today’s media – your phone, your computer, the newspaper – all the sources from which we get information.

Klein knows Plato can seem “fuddy-duddy” to students. His solution? “Black jackets and lasers and hip hairdos,” he joked.

In other words, he has his students watch excerpts of the 1999 film "The Matrix." Klein knows not everyone has read Plato, but familiarity with landmark sci-fi film is practically a rite of passage for most Georgia Tech students. The parallels between the stories create a connection from the present to the past.

“Plato has a lot to say about new media,” Klein said. In turn, it gives Klein a lot to say about the present media landscape. In his words: “I bring 2,000 year-old insights to new technology.”

Klein has an undergraduate degree in engineering and computer science from Princeton. He worked for five years in software but found he wasn’t happy.

“I felt I had learned how to get the right answers,” Klein said. “You're empowered to solve problems, but it's also very important to define a problem too.”

He said those that can define a problem are “trained for citizenship.”  Students studying liberal arts are grasping the theories that govern the republic.

They are also learning to question them. This way, the next time they see a candidate with a significant number of endorsements in a social media feed, instead of thinking “Two hundred people can’t be wrong,” Klein said, students are more apt to think critically about the number, and to consider that some of those endorsements may have been paid for.

Although it’s easy to get down about manipulation in media, Klein advises against defeatism. He calls his approach “critical optimism.” It’s not all a pack of lies, but ‘the truth’ is worth questioning.

And if your daughter is excited the President wrote her, Klein said it’s okay to save those questions for another day.

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