Google, Search, and Democracy
What started as a pesky experience of noticing those Converse you looked at but did not purchase follow you around the internet, "coincidentally" populating the skyscrapers of every subsequent site you visited, has morphed beyond commerce and into politics.
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More than just spreading rightwing ideology, they are being used to track and monitor and influence anyone who comes across their content. “I scraped the trackers on these sites and I was absolutely dumbfounded. Every time someone likes one of these posts on Facebook or visits one of these websites, the scripts are then following you around the web. And this enables data-mining and influencing companies like Cambridge Analytica to precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web, and to send them highly personalised political messages. This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.”
Steve Bannon, founder of Breitbart News and the newly appointed chief strategist to Trump, is on Cambridge Analytica’s board and it has emerged that the company is in talks to undertake political messaging work for the Trump administration. It claims to have built psychological profiles using 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters. It knows their quirks and nuances and daily habits and can target them individually.
“They were using 40-50,000 different variants of ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response,” says Martin Moore of Kings College. Because they have so much data on individuals and they use such phenomenally powerful distribution networks, they allow campaigns to bypass a lot of existing laws.
“It’s all done completely opaquely and they can spend as much money as they like on particular locations because you can focus on a five-mile radius or even a single demographic. Fake news is important but it’s only one part of it. These companies have found a way of transgressing 150 years of legislation that we’ve developed to make elections fair and open.
If you've ever talked to me about marketing and the predictive power of demographics, you've heard me retell the illustrative Target story – the one where the company's direct mail program algorithms knew a 16 year old girl was pregnant before her father did (and to inject some levity here, it's not actually surprising that Dad was the last to know, it is that Target knew at all, and knew based on the purchase of seemingly random, non-baby related goods).
What underpins the Target story – and now informs the Internet as a whole, is the science of people's likely behavior + their demographic habits (to simplify things). From a theoretical standpoint, I'm curious about future-planning and persuasion. My mind ruminates over how we know, how we anticipate, and how we encourage certain behaviors: Open this email. Buy this product. Marketing projects are ultimately a pathway to encourage a preferred result. And over the past few years, the majority of these efforts have moved to social media platforms.
I want to embrace social media. I believe that in order to remain professionally and culturally relevant we have to develop a mastery of social and digital media. What unsettles me is that the virtual world has come to have too strong an influence on the real one.