Perhaps these heebie-jeebies are mine and mine alone, but the parallels between this Sasha Issenberg piece
The Obama campaign embedded social scientists from the Analyst Institute among its staff. Party officials knew that adding new Democratic voters to the registration rolls was a crucial element in their strategy for 2012. But already the campaign had ambitions beyond merely modifying nonparticipating citizens’ behavior through registration and mobilization. It wanted to take on the most vexing problem in politics: changing voters’ minds. … as campaigns developed deep portraits of the voters in their databases, it became possible to measure the attributes of the people who were actually moved by an experiment’s impact. … An experimental program would … develop a range of prospective messages that could be subjected to empirical testing in the real world. Experimenters would randomly assign voters to receive varied sequences of direct mail—four pieces on the same policy theme, each making a slightly different case for Obama—and then use ongoing survey calls to isolate the attributes of those whose opinions changed as a result.
and this classic Frederik Pohl short story
It was the morning of June 15th, and Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming out of a dream. It had been a monstrous and incomprehensible dream, of explosions and shadowy figures that were not men and terror beyond words. He shuddered and opened his eyes. Outside his bedroom window, a hugely amplified voice was howling. Burckhardt stumbled over to the window and stared outside. There was an out-of-season chill to the air, more like October than June; but the scent was normal enough — except for the sound-truck that squatted at curbside halfway down the block. Its speaker horns blared: “Are you a coward? Are you a fool? Are you going to let crooked politicians steal the country from you? NO! Are you going to put up with four more years of graft and crime? NO! Are you going to vote straight Federal Party all up and down the ballot? YES! You just bet you are!” Sometimes he screams, sometimes he wheedles, threatens, begs, cajoles … but his voice goes on and on through one June 15th after another.
are a little more immediate than I would like.
I’m bullish about how experimentalism can improve democratic practice, when it happens under conditions of rough power equality. But it can equally be used to improve techniques of manipulation. One of the big themes of Pohl’s 1950s science fiction (The Space Merchants, “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners”) was how unpleasant the world could become if advertising actually worked. We may be about to find out if he’s right.