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The “neuropolitics” consultants who hack voters’ brains

Maria Pocovi slides her laptop over to me with the webcam switched on. My face stares back at me, overlaid with a grid of white lines that map the contours of my expression. Next to it is a shaded window that tracks six “core emotions”: happiness, surprise, disgust, fear, anger, and sadness. Each time my expression shifts, a measurement bar next to each emotion fluctuates, as if my feelings were an audio signal. After a few seconds, a bold green word flashes in the window: ANXIETY. When I look back at Pocovi, I get the sense she knows exactly what I’m thinking with one glance.

Petite with a welcoming smile, Pocovi, the founder of Emotion Research Lab in Valencia, Spain, is a global entrepreneur par excellence. When she comes to Silicon Valley, she doesn’t even rent an office—she just grabs a table here at the Plug and Play coworking space in Sunnyvale, California. But the technology she’s showing me is at the forefront of a quiet political revolution. Campaigns around the world are employing Emotion Research Lab and other marketers versed in neuroscience to penetrate voters’ unspoken feelings.

This spring there was a widespread outcry when American Facebook users found out that information they had posted on the social network—including their likes, interests, and political preferences—had been mined by the voter-targeting firm Cambridge Analytica. While it’s not clear how effective they were, the company’s algorithms may have helped fuel Donald Trump’s come-from-behind victory in 2016.

But to ambitious data scientists like Pocovi, who has worked with major political parties in Latin America in recent elections, Cambridge Analytica, which shut down in May, was behind the curve. Where it gauged people’s receptiveness to campaign messages by analyzing data they typed into Facebook, today’s “neuropolitical” consultants say they can peg voters’ feelings by observing their spontaneous responses: an electrical impulse from a key brain region, a split-­second grimace, or a moment’s hesitation as they ponder a question. The experts aim to divine voters’ intent from signals they’re not aware they’re producing. A candidate’s advisors can then attempt to use that biological data to influence voting decisions.

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