Brave New World

As the reporting about Cambridge Analytica’s sophisticated propaganda campaign suggests, we humans are far more “manipulatable” than we like to think–and Huxley was wrong to predict that it would require drugs (remember Soma?) to pacify or mislead us.

The linked article by two Harvard University researchers suggests that the discovery of this political operation raises the stakes of our ongoing concerns about the impact of digital technology on democracy.

There was already a debate raging about how targeted digital ads and messages from campaigns, partisan propagandists and even Russian agents were sowing outrage and division in the U.S. electorate. Now it appears that Cambridge Analytica took it one step farther, using highly sensitive personal data taken from Facebook users without their knowledge to manipulate them into supporting Donald Trump. This scandal raises major questions about how this could have happened, how it can be stopped and whether the connection between data-driven ads and democracy is fundamentally toxic.

It also raises concerns about the new ability of political operatives, armed with the results of political psychology research, to identify and prey on voters’ vulnerabilities. Extensive personal data amassed through social media platforms–especially Facebook– can be used  to manipulate voters and distort democratic debate. Cambridge Analytica exploited that ability on behalf of the Trump campaign.

We’ve come a long, long way from the days when we collectively received our news from a mass media. Instead, we now have what a scholar once predicted and dubbed “the daily me,” information (and disinformation) that feeds a personalized reality–Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble”–that isn’t necessarily shared with others.

On the internet, you don’t know much about the political ads you’re shown. You often don’t know who is creating them, since the disclaimers are so small, if they exist at all. You also don’t really know who else is seeing them. Sure, you can share a political ad — thus fulfilling the advertiser’s hopes — and then at least some other people you know will have witnessed the same ad. But you don’t really know if your neighbor has seen it, let alone someone else across the state or the country. In addition, digital advertising companies distribute ads based on how likely you are to interact with them. This most often means that they send you ads they think you are likeliest to engage with. They don’t determine what the nature of that engaging content might be — but they know (just as all advertisers do) that content works well if it makes you very emotional. An ad like that doesn’t make you contemplative or curious, it makes you elated, excited, sad or angry. It could make you so angry, in fact, that you’ll share it and make others angry — which in turn gives the ad free publicity, effectively making the advertiser’s purchase cheaper per viewer, since they pay for the initial outreach and not the shares.

What this can lead to is communities and, eventually, a nation infuriated by things others don’t know about. The information that makes us angriest becomes the information least likely to be questioned. We wind up stewing over things that, by design, few others can correct, engage with or learn from. A Jeffersonian public square where lots of viewpoints go to mingle, debate and compromise, this is not.

As the authors note, none of this means that Facebook and Twitter intentionally undermined Hillary Clinton. It’s much worse, because the technology that powers social media uses the personal data to which they become privy to divide the American population and then feed us “highly personalized messages designed to push our particular buttons so well that we share them and they go viral, thus keeping people on the site longer.”

Social media rewards provocation — again, without repercussion, since we usually only share content with our friends in a way that is largely invisible to the broader public. Morality and integrity count little in online advertising.

The real question here isn’t which campaign got the advantage. The real question is whether this micro-targeted free-for-all should be allowed in the political sphere at all in the way it is currently designed —with very little transparency about who is pulling these strings and how they are doing it.

We truly do inhabit a new world. I don’t know how brave it is.

39 thoughts on “Brave New World

  1. I despise the ways in which everything was “gamed.” However – and I ask this seriously, not to pose a cynical straw man argument- if there are statutes enacted to limit, in future elections, what occurred in 2016, where are the bounds on restrictions of free speech and expression? Participation by corporations owned by foreign interests is one area to be examined. Where does the right of speech and the goal of persuasion it implies end and cold manipulation via data that somehow is outside the First Amendment begin?

  2. A friend of mine said she’s noticed that both parties use the same ad companies for their campaigns . Pay them enough and they’ll try to convince anyone whatever. She gave up politics.

  3. Marge,

    “A friend of mine said she’s noticed that both parties use the same ad companies for their campaigns.”

    At one time, not so long ago, a top political consultant for the Democratic Party and a top political consultant for the Republican Party were husband and wife.

  4. “Extensive personal data amassed through social media platforms–especially Facebook– can be used to manipulate voters and distort democratic debate. Cambridge Analytica exploited that ability on behalf of the Trump campaign.”

    Social media platforms such as Facebook have been a boon to millions of us; we have searched for and found old friends and family members to reunite with. We have used social media to learn what is going on in our neighborhoods, cities and states as well as the nation and beyond that we cannot learn from our local news in printed or on air formats. Just as criminals always find a way around our security systems to continue burglarize and rob us, even in gated communities, we are not safe anywhere. There will always be those who will bastardize new, positive sources of communication to criminalize and/or use it to destroy the positive, beneficial elements of communication.

    The assassination of President John Kennedy, followed by those of Rev. Martin Luther, King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were said to have destroyed our belief in our physical safety in America. September 11, 2001, destroyed forever our belief that we are safe from attacks by other nations on our own ground. It should come as no surprise that our basic communication systems have progressed beyond any level we believed possible a few years ago and that they have been turned against us…in our own homes. We must be on guard at all times, in all places, because we are not safe even communicating with friends and family on personal issues.

    “We truly do inhabit a new world. I don’t know how brave it is.”

    Like it or not; this new world has engulfed us even in our own homes and will engulf our very thought processes if we are not on guard at all times. Sheila referred to the movie “The Body Snatchers” just yesterday; the Trump supporters have already been taken over by his White Nationalist “Mind Snatchers”; we can read their beliefs on all forms of social media.

  5. The sky is falling. Am I too old, too naive, too digitally uninformed to have been manipulated and unaware of it? None of these cries of disaster has given a concrete example of how I might have been or was influenced positively or negatively. Can someone cite such a manipulation?

  6. Marv,

    That husband and wife team took their dog and pony show to all of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows for years. It took no one long to see that to them it was just a game, a performance. And that brings me to my point this morning, and it is this. IMO the people engaged in all of this technical skulduggery see what they are doing as only a game. They tell themselves that no one gets hurt, they just lose. They see the world as a divided arena where there are only winners and losers. They were this way before Trump, and they will be this way after. Trump appealed to them because deep down they are just like him.

  7. I’m likely older than JoAnn, and maybe as technically astute, but I am not fearful that in my home I’m under attack. Give me a concrete example.

  8. Theresa Bowers, it took barely one episode of the wife/husband wife team to recognize a fraud.

  9. New World?
    Responsibility has not changed.
    “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” page 95
    Victor Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning”

  10. This is just standard advertising techniques on steroids. Madison Avenue has been doing this sort of thing for decades. The only difference is that now it is personalized. When politicians put advertising out, they have to say something like “I am So and So, and I authorized this message.” Perhaps something along those lines needs to be required, and when the identification is not there, the medium could refuse to post it.

  11. Theresa, I don’t accept the idea that any person or institution has used social media to overcome my perception of political candidates or elected officials. One has only to listen or read: propaganda betrays itself.

  12. The most aggravating issue is that Mark Zuckerberg knew about this back in 2015 and chose not to stop it. He chose to keep it secret so that his company’s stock would not take a hit.

    His absolute greed kept him from exposing the abuse of his subscribers even though he was aware of the damage that was taking place.

    Will Congress actually make any real effort to regulate facebook and other companies like his? Or will be manage to pay off enough of them to ensure that any regulation will be so minimal that it is worthless?

  13. The problem in my thinking at least, says that we are at a very critical stage in the understanding of the effect of our technologies upon the human being. But in spite THAT, we have other things attempting to worm into our political process – the UNIONIZATION OF CAMPAIGN WORKERS – yes I wrote that right supposedly a Woman by the name of Ahib Sayed (sp. heard the name on NPR) is attempting to bring about a union for campaign workers. I have to say that is not only NOT in the cards for free and fair elections it is in fact the opposite. We are surrounded by Philistines! The United States of America is losing the war – from the inside.

  14. Wayne, none us will ever know if we were among those targeted by Cambridge Analytica, but I’m guessing the main targets were people who follow Fox News and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. I’m acquainted with many such people, and they seem to be brainwashed. They accept what they hear from these sources as gospel, and never feel the need to fact-check, so anything pro-Trump or anti-Clinton thrown at them during the election campaign would also have been accepted as truth. And there are those who are just flat gullible and believe what is fed to them with no curiosity about what the truth is. Some of us may see that kind of thing and know immediately that it’s “fake news” or we at least are skeptical enough to do some fact checking. I’m guessing you fall into the latter category – if It smells like a rat, you know it’s probably a rat.

  15. Trump received 3 million fewer votes than Clinton. A few thousand votes in certain precincts in 3 states caused Electoral College votes to elect Trump. I’m supposed to believe that Zuckerberg, et al, influenced, by means of algorithms, that anomaly, rather than the combination of gerrymandering, voter ID suppression and turnout suppression. If so, Zuckerberg is truly a genius.

  16. Theresa,

    We aren’t the ones who have been “screwed” by the likes of James Carville. See the following:

    WASHINGTON — Twelve years ago this October, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, popularly known as Goni, resigned as president of Bolivia and boarded a commercial flight from La Paz to Washington, D.C. Just a year earlier, he’d been voted into office for a second time, after serving as president from 1993 to 1997. He won the 2002 vote by a narrow margin. Helping him engineer the victory was James Carville — the “Ragin’ Cajun” who ran Bill Clinton’s legendary 1992 presidential campaign, immortalized in the documentary film The War Room — and a cohort of other U.S. political strategists. Goni’s short second presidency ended with more than 60 people dead and hundreds injured as the military cracked down on opposition protests.

    He hasn’t been back to Bolivia since. These days, he lives on a well-appointed suburban street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington.

    It looks like Bolivia escaped with less injury than we will have from the likes of Carville et al.

  17. Wayne,

    It is likely that you weren’t persuaded by anything you saw on social media, especially if you take the time to listen and read. Most people don’t seek other sources of information. They just accept what they read. What you need to consider is that these ads were targeted to people who were already inclined to believe them. Those reinforced beliefs were then shared with their friends who may or may not have those same inclinations. Those who had no information might believe what they read, especially if similar stories kept coming. For example, I have a friend who firmly believes that Hillary killed Vince Foster, a fictional FBI agent, and a staffer at the DNC, in addition to her child molestation ring in the basement of the pizza parlor. All of this is ridiculous, but she continues to believe and to share.

    Sheila,

    Huxley died in 1963, before television became the mind numbing drug that it is today. Had he foreseen that, or even heeded McLuhan, he may not have used a drug in his novel.

  18. Marv,

    And I’ll bet that if you confronted Carville with his part in the deaths and injuries of those people in Bolivia he would scream that it was only a game.

  19. Wayne; I will be 81 years old on April 27th. If you don’t believe you are being attacked in your own home, you haven’t been watching Donald Trump’s mass destruction of democracy; aimed at those of us who are currently in the political minority class of Americans. He is a one-man demolition derby and is destroying our protective elements within the government; proving his Sharpie is mightier than the sword of justice.

    And to agree with Theresa; none of us knows when we were – or are – being influenced. What or who brought you to your current belief system and when did it happen. You did not invent or create them from a void.

    Channel surfing this morning; something stopped me on a religious program, “Turning Point” as the minister/preacher, David Jeremiah, spoke to an auditorium filled with a few thousand people. I am assuming it was his church. I decided to see where his message was going; it consisted of Bible quotes, not one original thought passed his lips and I kept asking myself how had I been so easily “influenced” by religion when the message appeared to obviously do away with all original thoughts I might have and filled my head with words unrelated to my life? Jeremiah’s words led to the end of his program when he offered up two free new books of the many he has written which included 5 or 6 different Bibles which are HIS versions of what message Bibles actually relay…they of course were not free. And the cost of his books and his messages must have built that huge auditorium/church filled with people gazing with vacuous expressions as they were “influenced” by his words. He was in essence telling them NOT to think their own thoughts but to follow the Bible quotes, chapter and verse, to lead them to salvation. I had expected an eventual connection to something, anything, related to what we are facing in reality today and possibly how to live with it or how to change it. It was all a sales-pitch for his books. Just as Trump’s words and actions are a sales-pitch and distraction while his private Congress destroys our civil and human rights; the “influence” still guiding his supporters.

  20. Remember the first axiom of the socialization of humans: All politics are local.

    Politics, along with its stepchild, religion, evolved in the tribal setting a couple hundred thousand years ago. Manipulation of groups of people is that old. We are hard-wired to be manipulated…or to reject being manipulated.

    We each have to decide.

  21. Propaganda comes in many forms…the state has been using it for generations. Sources within the government are told to tell their “contact with the Times” this or that.

    However, when sources leak the truth to independent media they are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Nobody questions it. The mass media serves up one view…the state’s and industry’s viewpoint.

    Guess which POTUS was the harshest on “whistle blowers”?

    Obama.

    Why didn’t he prosecute Bush and Cheney for crimes against humanity?

    Our Europe counterparts were much harsher on their leaders who misled the public. We did nothing.

    Propaganda is a form of manipulation which has been the hallmark of our country for a very long time. Why did poor whites from the South fight a war for rich plantation owners so they could keep slaves?

    They were manipulated.

    This is why critical thinking is so important for our society, but it’s also why they want workers to not possess this quality.

    Look at all our young critical thinkers who marched on Washington this weekend. These kids grew up with Smart phones attached to their hands. They can research any topic they’d like and have access to websites who’ve busted through all the propaganda spreading.

    If you get your news from the TV, radio, or newspaper, you’re not at all informed. They only provide superficial information from the perspective of the owners–the Entertainment Complex where a handful of companies own 90% of all media companies.

    Thankfully, our kids see through the facade the Oligarchs have created and call the USA.

  22. anytime the internet allows you to come on board,even for a look, it obligated you to recieve,give,and many times take, you information,i.p. address,and cookies that, when opening a single page,could,throw a app in.. you dont know….. Ive asked many phone centers on calls relating to various issues with operations,offers,and or, any thing that is offered. I ask who wrote the app? and its ,,i dont know,and how do you know,that app isnt making a effort to get into other information in your system,and life.. I studied this years ago, an thats why, i never touched facebook, clouds,tweets,etc, any site can and will, sell,and or use you,and anything they decided on.. we seen kids stuff tracking them,and delibertly,and,,,they come back and say were sorry,wrong etc. if even one enity goes and does that,the whole enity is flawed for even thinking,our children are fare game…….. we have been DENIED, by all sites a opt out clause to be up front, ATT,FACE,VERIZON! and many more,being forthright isnt in their game,like wall street,were used as profit,without regard. experion,6 months before notice,we were hacked. plain wreckless,and ot our expense. we need a north American push for total
    up front knowlege of what,and who they deal with,on our privacy . if your incline to say whats the problem,then by all means,allow us,to stay private. we are not,for sale. i railed on this before the net,mailing lists. I hauled those time date inserts,offers,stuff that was mailed and sent to you,and you wonder how they got your name? guess what, someone sold it…someone made money on your name,and you got nothing but more junk mail..and lost some privacy.. heres a scenrio,and this is absolutly how it went. i picked up a truckload of flyers,to be mailed, at a printer, delivered them to the fulfillment center,i watched them immediately take them to a room where they put them in a machine,envolopes in the other side of this machine. the operator of this machine went to a tool room,actully where they stored the tapes,pre-computer,he showed his card, his work oreder. a tape with 100,000 names and address were given,he set it up,and it placed the flyer in a envolope and printed the name and address,and sent it to a mail bag for that route.the supervisor was there,we were talking up the great way this worked, wheni asked how he got the addresses,he said they are sold on the market,about a buck a name..that was 1983.. and how many times were those names sold,and did you get anything in return,for their,use of your name,for,thier,profit? same today,a massive scale compared to old, world wide now,and, privacy be damned… we have become numb to facts when we use our devises. im on my 4th impad, i trash them every few years. never update,never app..its my privacy,got to h,ll… we dont know,and guessing is a game. we need real alternitves to making our privacy paramount again. europe doesnt tollerate googles crap,or the way they,use information. google is the number one issue. i never allow it to be a search engine,i see google analyitics constantly when i open my cookies page,not because google is used,it because every site contracts with google, even if we,dont want to be tracked by google. again,privacy issues. you cant even remove google anallytics,on ever move when on a site,it returns before the last key stroke.apple should,along with any supplier of computers,have a opt out page for such cookies,apps,search engines..period!!!!. The EFF eletronic frontier found., has information on these issues. read them,study why. the goverment has a 600 million dollar contract with face to watch you also… we need change,but you,have to change it…

  23. Political propaganda is nothing new; only the means have changed with a sophistication beyond the pamphleteering days of Paine and Marx. What is worrisome is the accelerated pace of spin via such means which I think will get worse rather than better. We humans simply have to educate ourselves to discriminate between fact and AI fancy. That will not be easy since politicians prefer manipulated voters and are willing to pay hired Hessians such as those mentioned today by other commentators as well as the Analyticals crowd – all reinforced by silly sloganeering such as “Make America Great Again,” “Old Hickory,” the “Rail-Splitting” Lincoln and other such appeals to those sought to be manipulated. We find further reinforcement of the manipulative in such state-sponsored programs (or lack thereof) as the decision of the Texas State Board of Education to remove Civics from the high school curriculum, thus assisting in “keep ’em dumb” campaign and thus more manipulative to Republican initiatives.

    Thus Cambridge and the Russians and other such sinister forces as the Mercers and Kochs have company in the destruction of the underpinnings of American democracy. Some such forces and external and some internal, all with a view toward political and economic control of our lives – and it’s working. This November (if we last that long at the present pace of nuclear threats, tariffs, psychoses etc.) we must reverse this trend toward manipulation of our brains by electing those who value the common good over mere acquisition of assets.

  24. What we know is quite a bit about the nature of the Republican and Democrat base, the nature of the Russian and Mercer and Koch social media meddling and the role of Ailes’ Fox News over 3 or 4 decades and their radio counterparts like Limbaugh.

    To me those jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together flawlessly.

    There’s a temptation for us liberals to be fair and worry about everything and everyone including the home team. Have we been misled too?

    I’m sure that the Venn Diagram describing the makeup of the two bases would show some small overlap but knowing the typical person in each base I can’t imagine it’s much.

    If all of this meddling affected both bases equally one could argue that it’s just noise rather than influence.

    But I think it’s common sense that the average authoritatarian compared to the average liberal is affected much differently by the social baiting therefore the messages influence the Republicsn base much more than the Democrat base.

    That is as inherently anti-democratic as gerrymandering or the Electoral College is.

    Our problem is that it’s a challenge to reconcile the democratic thing with the free speech thing. Unfortunately it’s more challenging to be done by this Congress than any before it.

    This to me is the biggest challenge we face. Can democracy, modern advertising and freedom of speech coexist.

    I think that we need some very profound thinking to be invested in that at a time when anything profound has been largely driven underground.

  25. “But I think it’s common sense that the average authoritatarian compared to the average liberal is affected much differently by the social baiting therefore the messages influence the Republicsn base much more than the Democrat base.”

    One of the reasons it makes sense for that to be true is that many more of the authoritatarian base are single issue voters which is very unusual among liberals. Liberals tend to be inclusive and authoritatarians exclusive.

  26. Don’t forget, for example, the propaganda coming from the majority of the Southern Baptist Convention Ministers has been just as toxic or poisonous as anything you can find in the digital universe. The only difference is that it has been MASKED with Christianity.

  27. To me their kind of propganda affects only single issue voters and it’s effect is not to expand their numbers to replace those dying off but to lock in their loyalty.

    I’m sure that it’s effective at that but ineffective at changing voting patterns.

    Democracy doesn’t care who one votes for but that it be informed and that’s the part that all single issue voters get wrong.

    There is never a single issue.

  28. Comrades – Propaganda has been with us probably since the days when humans first started to use art and learned to communicate with pictographs – hieroglyphics, (now we have Emojis) abstract forms (alphabet of some sort). Pharaohs, Roman Emperors all used public monuments and coins to enhance their persona, at times to god-like levels.

    Cambridge Analytica is given some near supernatural abilities to manipulate people. I find it disturbing that we have some people demanding or hinting at some sort of control should exercised over the Internet. This is censorship. Who will be the Grand Censor??

    As far as the manipulation of the masses to achieve a desired outcome – this has long been the goal of state propaganda and corporate marketing. The drumbeats for Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2 saw the marriage of state propaganda and corporate marketing by the McMega-Media.

    A good article on this manipulation is by Chris Hedges: The Day That TV News Died
    March 25, 2013 > The celebrity trolls who currently reign on commercial television read from the same corporate script. They are paid to chatter mindlessly, hour after hour, filling our heads with the theater of the absurd. They ignore what the corporate state wants ignored. They champion what the corporate state wants championed. They do not challenge or acknowledge the structures of corporate power. http://billmoyers.com/2013/03/25/the-day-that-tv-news-died/

    This was written 2 years before Bernie Sanders challenged corporate power. It was very clear that the Sanders campaign was ignored compared to the Trumpet (aka Agent Orange).

  29. Pete,

    “Can supernatural propaganda coexist with democracy and freedom of speech?”

    Denying something doesn’t make it go away. You’re not powerful.

  30. Our democracy is being attacked at multiple levels: oligarchic, religious, digital, and partisan politics. At any one time, all four levels can be utilized in TANDEM.

    tan-dem (tan’ dem) adv. [punning use of L. tandem, at length] one behind another; in single file—n. teamwork between two persons, etc. [to work in tandem]

    That’s why it’s imperative that an ETHICAL FRONT [for democracy] be created and activated as a COUNTERVAILING FORCE. There is no other way a NATIONAL EQUILIBRIUM can come about.

    They eventually understood this necessity in Nazi Germany, but the realization came too late.

    Reference: “The Revolution of Nihilism: A Warning to the West” by Hermann Rauschning (Alliance Book Corporation, New York, 1939) Also by the same author, “The Redemption of Democracy” (Alliance Book Corporation, New York, 194l).

  31. The dangers posed to us have been realized. A demagogue was elected thanks to the helpful efforts of a hostile, foreign power and Mark Zuckerberg who made millions from it. God only knows how much of my personal information is possibly in Russian and Trump’s hands – neither of which had my permission for that information.

    I suggest we all contact Facebook demanding that our information be returned to us as well as proof that Facebook has retrieved all such information from all parties. If they cannot retrieve that information, Facebook should pay US for our own information which they sold without our permission or knowledge.

  32. The essence is as simple as the old politician going into a bar and asking for his preference. His answer is whatever you are drinking I am drinking. What ever you are smoking, I am smoking.

    You felt comfortable and lowered your guard happy to share you thoughts with such a congenial fellow. Read the biography of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grand father. He would ride the same crowded train both ways time after time.

    So I have no problem with the gathering of data (all kinds of preferences), politicians have been trying to do that for centuries. It is the attack from the right with the intent of destroying journalism that is the problem. To quote Senator Moynihan again we are not entitled to our own facts. The right is acting to destroy any honest broker of facts, and that is the true threat to our or any civilization.

  33. Marv I’m not smart enough to figure out if democracy and freedom of speech and supernatural propganda can co-exist. It didn’t in pre war Germany.

    I do know that democracy cannot coexist long term with incompetent government but this is our first experience with that at this magnitude.

    I don’t think that we can afford to risk it so we need to rid ourselves if it ASAP. I propose the most definite path starts with all Ds this year.

  34. There’s a lot of money out there for political influencing. When someone is willing to shell out 5 million dollars for a job that pays 174000 a year for 2 years it’s time to look at the internal structure of our political system and make some drastic changes

  35. I wonder: is there any data regarding who was manipulated by these ads most easily? Is the younger generation – like the students involved in the March For Our Lives events – as susceptible to these techniques as people my age (over 50, to be kind)? Are they better at spotting manipulative ads? Are they as easily influenced as some of we older folks seem to be by these ads?

    They seem to be more tech-savvy and maybe more cynical – in a good way.

    If they’re more sophisticated about these things, maybe we should engage in some civilized, inter-generational conversations. We all need to be better at realizing when someone is trying to manipulate us.

    And, as they age (and we die off) and their votes are less mailable (and they go to the polls), perhaps our democracy will be saved.

    Or not.

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