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Public Event – Rebecca Lemov

From Mass to Micro Persuasion in the Age of Big Data

During World War II a small team of behavioral scientists undertook the Mass Persuasion study to trace the mechanisms by which Americans exposed to propaganda messages were compelled to change their normal behavior. Published in 1946, Robert K. Merton and his team laid out principles by which “technicians of sentiment” influenced a mass audience by triggering patriotic responses. This talk traces examines how such persuasive techniques work today, when they are driven by “big data,” real-time information gathering, and AI in the form of microtargeting. Cambridge Analytica and more recent examples of behavioral engineering are examined.

Rebecca Lemov is a professor of the History of Science at Harvard where she teaches about the pre-history of Big Data, brainwashing techniques, and the behavioral sciences.

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