Tag: data

What Really Motivates the Media?

Thomas Calabro | United States

The media is probably one of the most politically powerful entities in the US. This unique group can reveal dark secrets, spin stories for deceptive purposes, or blatantly lie to create emotional backlash against an event. Their social status puts them in a position where they are not only respected, but their claims are immediately revered as truths. This special status distorts any skepticism of the press as threats against the media as well as our very own democracy. Any person who wishes to challenge the media is automatically a tyrant, who wishes to keep their operations a secret from the public.

This is not a support for taking away the rights of the press, nor is it supporting strong central figure to destroy the media for exposing bad policies, unnecessary military conflicts, and his/her lies to the people. The media does play a role in preventing authoritarians from using fear-mongering tactics to suppress liberty, to engage in war, and to obtain more influence. Without a free press we would not we might not know of our atrocious policies, military conflicts, and much more. But one can support the media while also having some skepticism towards this institution’s claims.

This leaves me with the question: What is the motivation inside the media? Is it a desire to provide information to all, and truly stop tyrants? Is it an evil inclination to deceive the pubic to fall in line with their own personal biases? What drives those with such power to go out and write stories about the world, or engage in a hilarious confrontation with the president?

Personal Biases

We all have some sort of bias in our minds and our hearts. From how we were raised, to what we’ve experienced, and even what morals we follow, we can look at the world and see it differently from others. These biases can be so strong that it is obvious where the writer/pundit is trying to lead the audience. Someone who has a political agenda, such as those from past administrations, or supporters for the opposition party, can find the spin that can make a story support their own beliefs.

However these biases can also be very minute, as well as difficult to spot. The biased person may not even notice their bias, but can find themselves following these deep-seeded inclinations. This could be exposure to some phenomenon, or the acceptance of some beliefs as factual, instead of arguable. It could be poor experiences with authority that may not seem significant at first glance but can still impact how one looks at any kind of established authority.

Historical Preservation

With a media as powerful as today’s, many argue that such a force has the ability to take down powerful figures, especially the President. This in turn gives media figures a special place in history as fighting corruption, removing a President, or preserving democracy. The obvious example is the Watergate scandal, which both uplifts and destroys the media’s role in the impeachment/resignation of President Richard Nixon. While we generally see the media as essential in uncovering Watergate, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as important for their work, many argue, as well as Woodward himself, that we should not “overemphasize” the press’ power.

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he says. “The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it’s a mistake to overemphasize (the role of the media)” – Robert Woodward

Of course, without Woodward and Bernstein, the Watergate story would’ve either been hidden forever, or lost public interest as it developed. It is possible that many may wish to become the next Bob Woodward, exposing corruption, creating buzz, and creating a name that will last throughout history. Even if Woodward is right about the media’s actual role, sociologist Michael Schudson thinks it doesn’t matter, that the myth of the media’s role makes the media far more powerful and respected.

A mythology of the press in Watergate developed into a significant national myth, a story that independently carries on a memory of Watergate even as details about what Nixon did or did not do fade away. At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington Post reporters brought down the president of the United States. This is a myth of David and Goliath, of powerless individuals overturning an institution of overwhelming might. It is high noon in Washington, with two white-hatted young reporters at one end of the street and the black-hatted president at the other, protected by his minions. And the good guys win. The press, truth its only weapon, saves the day.” – Michael Schudson Watergate in American Memory

Regardless, the media’s past is one of a powerful entity, one that can also preserve our names if we expose dictators and make significant changes in political climates.

Pandering Press

Every ideology has their own group that supports their stances, and worships their heroes for defending their cause. They also have their super villains to fight against. This creates a demand for stories, data, and opinions that promote their views and beliefs by telling the story they want to hear. A great example is the left-leaning sites that claim Senator Sanders influenced Jeff Bezos’ wage hike. The audience wants their hero to defeat, or even outsmart their villain, will rejoice anyone who panders to them.

The Truth Seekers

Obviously, even if you have a negative view of the mainstream media, there are some out there who truly want to spread information and make a difference. They can expose problematic policies, sad stories, and horrific tales, as well as uplifting stories about the good in the world. They will rely on facts, listen to the reality we live in, and let the people know what goes on in our world.

Regardless of the media’s specific motivation, we find ourselves struggling to grasp on to truth and knowledge without getting caught up in the hysterics. The best approach to look at the news is to have a certain skepticism until enough research can support claims made. This will not only create a sense of responsibility, but can help one look objectively at the world around them, and focus on the facts, not the deceptions.


Get awesome merchandise. Help 71 Republic end the media oligarchy. Donate today to our Patreon, which you can find here. Thank you very much for your support!

Featured Image Source

Advertisements

Social Media Shouldn’t Be Free

Craig Axford | United States

The old cliche ‘You get what you pay for’ doesn’t always apply, but it usually does. The things we value typically come with a price attached because what’s worthwhile takes some effort to produce, use, and maintain. This is as true for physical products like laptops and refrigerators as it is for services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The current public debate surrounding the deplatforming of Infowars demonstrates just how wrong we’ve been to accept the services our social media platforms provide free of charge. In hindsight, we should have known the ability to communicate and develop online relationships with people on the other side of the globe was going to come at a cost, even if that cost turned out to be hidden rather than in the form of the usual direct hit to our wallets.

We are finally beginning to realize that we, the users of these platforms, were the product all along. The companies that developed the online services we use have to make money somehow. Collecting massive amounts of data that can be shared with advertisers and political campaigns turned out to be a pretty good business. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be amoral.

When what is being mined is information about a platform’s users it doesn’t matter if those users are clicking on salacious posts, fake news, nutty conspiracy theories, or hate speech any more than it matters if they prefer vacation photos, the New York Times, science podcasts, or happy birthday messages. The point is to gather the most information possible about the population by whatever means necessary and to amplify exposure to the identified preferences. This effort includes vacuuming up all our weird searches and documenting our often unconscious bias for instantly gratifying if frequently rather unedifying content.

Madison Avenue knew that sex and other provocative messages moved the merchandise they were peddling long before social media came along. What an internet that consists largely of free online services algorithmically amplifying some of our worst tendencies provides is a far more efficient delivery vehicle. That If given the choice between a free TED talk or free outrageous videos depicting a guy shouting crazy theories into a microphone the latter would enjoy a disproportionate competitive advantage should have come as no surprise to those familiar with evolutionary biology. Alex Jones is the information age’s equivalent of the guy on the savannah shouting about a hungry lion lurking in the grass while the best TED lectures are more like a story being told about a lion to a group sitting safely around the campfire.

While everyone finds it difficult to consistently resist the so-called clickbait, that doesn’t mean we won’t discover that the internet equivalent of the old campfire stories are far more satisfying experiences in the end. We shouldn’t conclude our innate tendency to gravitate toward instant gratification is evidence we find said gratification more meaningful in the long run.

Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to truly explore the possibilities the internet had to offer. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion. Young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg were playful experimenters with a technology whose reach and power they couldn’t have foreseen. When Zuckerberg and his college roommate Eduardo Saverin first created their social network, they weren’t imagining something with global reach. It was initially intended to extend no further than their fellow Harvard classmates.

But now Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media have achieved a scale and breadth that poses a threat to the very democratic institutions that gave them room to emerge in the first place. These services are available for free to anyone with access to a computer and a few extra dollars to give to an internet service provider each month.

This fact distinguishes social media networks from the books that entered mass production after Gutenberg invented his printing press in the mid 15th century. While books became considerably cheaper and more readily available in the decades that followed Gutenberg’s creation, they still required some financial investment and demanded a fair amount of time to read. Social media is a time suck to be sure, but the way it consumes our spare hours and attention is considerably more fragmented.

Smartphone technology means social media and other websites are sources of information we can easily engage with while waiting for our morning coffee, whereas a book requires us to commit ourselves to a certain degree of solitude and concentration in order to be readily absorbed. In addition, books and other non-electronic forms of the written word don’t demand an immediate response. They are mediums that come with time to reflect and absorb their contents provided as byproducts of the technology.


Markets, if they are functioning properly, provide societies with the collective means to place a price upon the products and services people find meaningful. That’s why we still typically pay for books. Even our public libraries are financed through our tax dollars and donations. It is largely by avoiding these sorts of direct private and indirect public contributions that social media has been able to accumulate billions of users globally.

This huge population of “subscribers” gives the impression that the public finds the services Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others provide truly meaningful. But given individuals are only asked to pay if they have something to sell or promote on these networks it’s impossible to know to what degree the average user really values them.

Research shows it’s meaning, not happiness, that ultimately matters most when it comes to human well-being. According to an August 2013 article in The Atlantic regarding research into the relationship between happiness, meaning, and health those that report greater meaning but less happiness generally enjoy greater health than those that report happiness alone or neither happiness nor meaning.

[Researchers] Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you as adversity,” says Fredrickson.

Of course, just because social media is generally provided free of charge doesn’t mean it’s devoid of people who find at least some meaning interacting online. However, if we accept the standard principles of market economics it almost certainly does mean these online services have far more people participating for purely hedonic or other shallow self-gratifying reasons than would otherwise be the case if they came at some small cost to subscribers.

But if we assume that, for the sake of argument, every user that now uses Facebook (or Twitter, Youtube, etc.) for free really does value the service the company provides, then these same people should be willing to pay some small charge for the continued privilege, even if only reluctantly. If nothing else, as paying subscribers they would likely receive greater privacy protections and enjoy less exposure to unwanted advertising then is the case now. After all, Facebook and other social networks would have a strong incentive to protect the personal information of its individual users if these users suddenly became the primary source of revenue.

Fees to access social networks wouldn’t need to be exorbitant. A small flat fee or a charge of a few cents per post would generate billions in annual revenue assuming companies like Facebook retained most of their current users following implementation. In Facebook’s case, even a 75% decline in active accounts could still easily generate two to three billion dollars a month in revenue for the company. Presumably, the remaining 25% would consist primarily of those that really appreciate the service and would, therefore, be less likely to post trivial, misleading, false or derogatory material.

For low-income customers social media companies may want to provide a means for people to apply for waivers or lower rates. Free or discounted access could also be provided to students or seniors. But even taking the time to apply for such benefits would demonstrate a willingness to invest a little personal effort into obtaining access, and personal investment of any sort means that in the end the users that are left would be, by and large, those that find social media truly meaningful.


Let us pause here to remark on a major recurrent dynamic that has shaped the course of attention industries: ‘the revolt.’ Industries may have an inherent tendency to ‘nestle everywhere,’ but when the commodity in question is access to people’s minds, the perpetual quest for growth ensures that forms of backlash, both major and minor, are all but inevitable…But the revolts can also take another, more dramatic form that is central to our story. When audiences begin to believe that they are being ill-used — whether overloaded, fooled, tricked, or purposefully manipulated — the reaction can be severe and long-lasting enough to have serious commercial consequences and require a significant reinvention of approach. ~ Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads

The impact to the social media world of a population of invested clients as opposed to passive users is difficult to specifically predict but it would certainly be profound. As customers instead of products, subscribers would very likely have to be empowered to take a greater role in shaping the information they wish to read/view instead of allowing an algorithm to make all/most of these choices for them. Those seeking to get users’ attention would have to compete for it instead of purchasing data from the company and targeting them with clickbait built around their predetermined biases and interests. Advertising could be extremely curtailed or eliminated altogether in such an environment, allowing for a greater focus on ideas, art, music and quality video productions. People increasingly could log in to be inspired as well as to stay in touch with people they care about instead of feeling infuriated when they slam their laptop shut.

The first tentative invitations to invest in the media we want instead of passively accepting the media that’s been handed to us have already been sent. This article will first appear on Medium, which provides unlimited access for $5 a month (US) and allows readers to “clap” for the content they appreciate. Writers posting on Medium share in a portion of the $5 fees the company collects from its members based upon the popularity of and engagement with their articles.

Patreon is another example. As its name implies Patreon is built around the old-fashioned idea of patronage, enabling creators to solicit funds from fans directly without having to seek corporate sponsorships or other means of support. Though no doubt most writers, artists, musicians and podcasters using services such as these don’t make a living off them, they can at least supplement their income while producing the kind of content that actually enriches our culture instead of fuelling conspiracy theories and rage.

Newspapers too are increasingly ending the misguided practice of providing their content for free online. They’ve learned the hard way that not asking readers to at least donate to support the generation of quality reporting cheapens their product. Arguably, the abundance of free news is one reason for the erosion in public trust the press has experienced in recent years. Our local, regional and national news organizations do not exist on the same playing field as the crank on Youtube spouting his theories on what brought the Twin Towers down or speculating about whether or not we really landed men on the Moon. However, when the products of both the conspiracy theorist and the reporter are available at no cost the illusion that somehow each is offering a perspective worthy of our time and attention receives at least some unintentional validation.

While writing of freedom in his revolutionary pamphlet The American Crisis,Thomas Paine reminded his readers “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” He continued, “Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its good; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

Both the means and the content of communications in a free society have consequences for the preservation of that freedom. The ads bought on Facebook as part of the Russian misinformation campaign every intelligence agency agrees took place during the 2016 campaign are said to have cost only around $100,000. Services that rely solely on advertising for their revenue will inevitably be used for such purposes again. Indeed, they probably already are. If how we communicate with friends, family, and with our fellow citizens isn’t worth a few dollars a month to ensure our social networks are serving us instead of inadvertently undermining our democratic institutions or advancing other nefarious agendas, then we should be asking ourselves why we’re wasting so much time on them in the first place.


To support 71 Republic, please donate to our Patreon, which you can find here.

Featured Image Source.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other articles you may enjoy:

Breaking The Rules Thoughtfully
What Alex Jones and a group of students in Tehran have to teach us about free speechmedium.com

Saving The Supreme Court
The fight over Anthony Kennedy’s replacement represents everything that’s wrong with the judicial nominating processmedium.com

Cambridge Analytica: A Case Study In Behaviorism Run Amok
People aren’t programmable computers, but the data analytics industry believes we are. Cambridge Analytica is just the…medium.com

Cambridge Analytica: A Case Study In Behaviorism Run Amok

Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

By Craig Axford | United States

Using information about people to manipulate them is nothing new. Psychologists refer to theory of mind as the capacity to attribute various mental states to others. Once we begin developing a theory of mind, using information we’ve acquired on others to our advantage follows very quickly. While this isn’t a uniquely human ability, our capacity for language and large brains have enabled us to take far greater advantage of it than any other species on the planet.

One indicator of a theory of mind is the ability to deceive. Animals do it all the time. In some cases deception is actually hardwired into a creature’s biology by evolution. Even in insects and plants we can find examples of false signals intended to convey the message to potential predators that they are poisonous when in fact they are not. But when it comes to skullduggery humanity can reach levels of sophistication other species couldn’t even begin to imagine, let alone implement.

. . .

The latest example of the use of information mined from our social environment and exploited for nefarious purposes involves the use of data gathered on around 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, a company specializing in targeting voters and consumers on behalf of clients in order to “move them to action.”

If you had just arrived from Mars you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the London based data firm with academic ties to one of England’s best known universities was the first to ever seriously undertake an effort to intentionally manipulate millions of people without either their knowledge or consent. However, such manipulation has been playing an increasingly overt role in our society since the early 20th century.

From Madison Avenue to political capitals around the world, psychology’s latest ideas regarding why people believe and behave the way they do have been a source of increasing fascination since at least World War I. After all, nothing requires a good sales pitch more than a war being fought for reasons that are as opaque as the blood tinged mud of the Somme and Verdun.

World War I propaganda poster

In his book How Propaganda Works, the philosopher Jason Stanley describes propaganda’s appeal this way:

Propaganda is not simply closing off rational debate by appeal to emotion: often emotions are rational and track reasons. It rather involves closing off debate by ‘emotions detached from ideas.’ According to these classical characterizations of propaganda, formed in reflecting upon the two great wars of the twentieth century, propaganda closes off debate by bypassing the rational will…Propaganda is manipulation of the rational will to close off debate.

Behaviorism is among the first non-Freudian theories to emerge in the developing field of psychology. It isn’t so much closed off to ideas as it is tailor made to advance any notion that happens to come along without concern for either its validity or ethical implications. Behaviorism’s founding father, John Watson, was a living testament to the amoral character of the doctrine of human nature he promoted. His experiments could be downright cruel, but making his point seemed to justify the means in his mind. Though not itself a form of propaganda, behaviorism’s linear mechanistic notions of human motivation made it the perfect psychological theory for both governments and industries increasingly seeking “scientific” means of mass manipulation.

Unlike the Freudians and Jungians preceding him, Watson saw people as scaled up and somewhat more sophisticated versions of Pavlov’s dogs. Perhaps we didn’t salivate as obviously when we heard the proverbial bell ring, but our responses to stimuli were typically no less conditioned. More importantly from the perspective of advertisers, politicians, intelligence agencies and other interested parties, Watson’s theory of human nature rendered us predictable and came without the messy and often baffling interpretations of the human psyche that men like Freud and Jung were known for.

To demonstrate humans are ultimately indistinguishable from Pavlov’s famous canines, Watson experimented on an 11 month old dubbed “Little Albert.” This unsuspecting infant was conditioned to fear rats, though it turned out the test had other effects beyond what even Watson could have anticipated. In The Attention Merchants, the media and technology writer Tim Wu describes the “Little Albert” experiment as follows:

“[Watson induced the phobia of rats] by striking a metal bar with a hammer behind the baby’s head every time a white rat was shown to him. After seven weeks of conditioning, the child, initially friendly to the rodent, began to fear it, bursting into tears at the sight of it. The child, in fact, began to fear anything white and furry — Watson bragged that ‘now he fears even Santa Claus.’”

A film still from the Little Albert experiment shows baby Albert with a rabbit, flanked by Dr. John Watson and Rosalie Rayner. (Wikimedia)

. . .

It should be obvious why behaviorism has considerable appeal to the advertising industry and certain professional political campaigners eager to find a short cut to the hearts and minds of the voting public. If we can in fact be conditioned to respond to a particular message or signal by buying a specific product or voting a certain way, the person or firm finding the best means for conditioning the most people will literally make themselves rich selling this service to the highest bidder.

What gets consistently overlooked to this day is the fact that “Little Albert” didn’t just develop a phobia of rats, but of other things as well. In poor Albert’s mind harmless rabbits and benevolent if fictitious characters like Santa had enough similar fuzzy qualities to induce anxiety. In other words, Watson didn’t so much prove that conditioning works on people — or at least people in the very early stages of emotional and cognitive development — as demonstrate that conditioning produces all sorts of unintended responses in addition to the intended one. This potentially leaves behaviorism’s predictive power as watered down and ineffectual as a homeopathic remedy. It also raises a number of thorny ethical questions regarding its application to both individuals and large groups.

That all behaviorism ultimately demonstrates is that under the “right” circumstances people will begin to associate two or more otherwise unrelated things with each other hasn’t kept it from having a powerful placebo effect on corporations and candidates convinced by the appeal of simplistic formulaic approaches to human complexity. It is precisely this kind of appeal that Cambridge Analytica was able to take advantage of.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. ~ John Watson

Cambridge Analytica’s work on the Trump campaign is a clear example of how data-driven marketing techniques can change behavior in target populations. Applied to the commercial sector, these techniques can strategically engage your key audiences, improving conversion rates and boosting sales. ~ Cambridge Analytica’s website

For quite some time the news has been full of stories about social media’s ability to provide insights into the human condition we otherwise wouldn’t have. By now we’ve all heard or read about the potential for Google search trends to reveal everything from pending flu pandemics to our secret sexual desires and hangups.These stories have convinced much of the public as well as industry, governments, and other institutions of social media’s power as an analytical tool.

It’s not that Google searches don’t say something about us. It’s just that virtually everything we do says something about us. To really get to the heart of the matter we must address salience and context in addition to correlation. That requires real research and that kind of effort requires money. That’s why so few are willing to engage in truly meaningful ways with the data social media captures.

Here are just a few of the questions that we should be asking:

  • What exactly does a particular data point reveal and how should it be weighed against all the other actions a person takes in the course of their day?
  • To what extent is two or more people clicking the thumbs up icon under the same story an indication that these individuals share the same or similar personality traits?
  • To the degree people could arguably have been conditioned to “like” (or dislike) something in either the more traditional sense or in a social media context, to what extent have the same environmental and social influences conditioned them to do so?

As with the rest of an individual’s life, the list of variables that influence a person’s choices online gets long quickly. To find out what they are will necessarily involve more than just searching the data for patterns. It will involve follow up interviews or other forms of direct outreach with a significant number of the people providing the data in the first place. The “like” icon on Facebook doesn’t allow a person to indicate how much, on a scale of 1 to 10, the person liked the post in question. Nor does Facebook provide a dropdown menu people can use to select what motivated them to like it in the first place. Maybe they had a stronger connection to the person sharing it than they did the content itself. Who knows? Certainly not any of the firms out there pitching themselves as the one with the magic algorithm that reveals the answers to these questions.

But neither scientific integrity in particular or ethical standards in general were high on Cambridge Analytica’s priority list when they gained access to the Facebook habits of 50 million users and began searching the data for patterns. As is usually the case when it comes to the use of big data, the focus is almost entirely on correlation with little to no effort being put into the follow up research necessary to determine what, if anything, the correlations found in the data actually mean.

Both the crime rate and ice cream consumption go up in the summer, but it doesn’t follow that criminals like ice cream or that ice cream consumptions causes crime. In addition, piracy has dropped as global temperatures have risen. Should we conclude that climate change is therefore linked to a decline in piracy? These are silly examples, but no more silly than many of the ones actually being offered as proof of concept by some data analytics firms. Cambridge Analytica’s website actually briefly references a correlation they found between car ownership and voting history, boasting that this is the kind of information a candidate can expect to find in their massive database. That there’s no reason to believe that knowledge of what a person drives will tell us anything meaningful about their concerns as a citizen seems not to have even occurred to Cambridge Analytica, or apparently to their clients.

Regardless, wouldn’t we much rather have candidates looking at files that describe how we actually feel about education, healthcare, and the environment instead of analyzing our car ownership records and driving habits for clues about how we’re inclined to vote in the next election? Unfortunately for us, neither Cambridge Analytica or other targeting firms care much about the science behind what they do. They seem to care even less, if that’s possible, about civics. Like John Watson before them, they genuinely believe human beings truly are programmable machines that can be made to behave in particular ways if only they can identify the right correlating buttons to push. To them we’re not citizens, spouses, parents, siblings, or friends. We’re all just their Little Alberts.

. . .

Tim Wu points out in The Attention Merchants that targeting isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. That we can make certain assumptions about people according to where they live, the magazines they subscribe to, whether or not they attend church weekly, etc., has long been broadly asserted.

Of course these assertions are not completely without foundation at the population level. However, it’s never safe to assume that just because a person lives in a particular place or belongs to a particular group they share the same attitudes or beliefs which, on average, can be identified with the group as a whole. Every community has its outliers. In many respects these outliers are far more interesting and informative than the bulk residing closer to the peak of the bell curve. That said, we have a name for the habit of making assumptions about people based upon real or perceived characteristics that have become associated with their group. It’s called stereotyping. That companies in the stereotyping business like to refer to it as “targeting” instead doesn’t make it any less pernicious or fallacious.

Wu tells us that a business known as “Claritas” was “probably the first modern targeting company.” Claritas was built around a concept known as “audience fragmentation,” a reference to a cable television term used in that newly emerging industry to describe increasingly identifiable segments within the cable TV market. Cable television was just becoming popular as Claritas opened its doors in the late 70s. “Of course,” Wu points out, “it was never entirely clear whether ‘fragment’ was being used as a verb or a noun: Were the [cable] networks reacting to fragmented audiences, or were they in fact fragmenting them?” Wu concludes that “In retrospect, they were doing both.”

The problem was then as it is now that by targeting people in specific areas in particular ways the very geographical and ideological divides the targeting company’s model assumes already exist risk being either created or enhanced. Cause and effect become difficult to distinguish when engaging in the act of targeting produces the world targeting claims is already there.

Behaviorism may have demonstrated that, up to a point, we can condition people to believe and do all kinds of crazy things. However, as John Watson’s cruel experiments on Little Albert show, it never seriously stopped to consider whether or not we should or to what ends we should limit its application. It is precisely because advertising, social media, and targeting have the power to create and reinforce (i.e., condition) the environment their algorithms claim to uncover that ethics as well as science must be central to any assessment of the methods and technologies these industries utilize. Data doesn’t just mold and often skew our own perspective. To the extent it is actively used by others without our consent to determine the information, products, services and choices that will be offered to us it will reshape the world to fit agendas, both conscious and unconscious, that we would likely be better off without.

. . .

Cambridge Analytica is just the latest consequence of the belief that people are blank slates; easy marks for additional conditioning experiments using the modern equivalent of bells and metal rods to to make us crave or fear particular products or groups. Madison avenue and political campaigns have been showing and sending us targeted material rationalized implicitly by this premise for decades. The rise of social media and the modern computing power it utilizes have, however, added new urgency to the need to critically reflect upon the flawed psychological theories and amoral philosophies behind the practice.

Madison Avenue and professional political operatives are never likely to seriously consider the ethical consequences that follow from their cynical and simplistic view of the human condition, never mind confess to it. That’s why we must. Whether or not you decide to delete your Facebook account in response to the latest scandal, that large numbers of us are actually taking that choice seriously for the first time signals a renewed willingness to proactively shape our own world instead of having it shaped for us by others. Perhaps Silicon Valley at least will realize that the species they’ve been evaluating through their algorithms is an X factor that still retains the capacity to surprise them.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other stories by Craig Axford that you might like:

Let The Market Kill Facebook

By Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

Facebook has been on fire lately. And this is not the type of fire that means you’ve been trending and achieving. This is the fire that signifies a burn to the ground.

It is the fire that results from the masses realizing that you have sacrificed psychological freedom on the altar of crony corporate profits mixed with disgusting, primitive democracy.

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission officially announced it was moving forward with an investigation surrounding the actions of the social media giant. They are doing this in response to a week of privacy scandals implicating that Facebook may have engaged in unfair acts, resulting in “substantial injury” to its users.

What exactly happened, though? Few know the full story, with bits and pieces trickling through their Facebook feed, ironically.

An organization by the name of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm, was used as Steve Bannon’s secret weapon in the 2016 election to gather data about 50 million Facebook users and create psychological profiles that would allow them to target. They would do this by utilizing fabricated stories and eventually sway voters in favor of the desired candidates.

We know this because Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on the operation. He was integral to the development of the program, having close ties with it every step of the way.

Yeah, it wasn’t the Russian boogiemen. It was Steve Bannon utilizing Mark Zuckerberg’s platform to get as close to mass mind control as he could, leaving privacy in the ditch with every opportunity.

To pour gasoline on the fire, a former Facebook manager made clear that hundreds of millions (yes, you read that number right) have had their data reaped for the use of private companies.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson came out and explained just how far this data grabbing goes:

“The most important part of apps and services that help you make connections is to make it easy to find the people you want to connect with. So, the first time you sign in on your phone to a messaging or social app, it’s a widely used practice to begin by uploading your phone contacts.

“Contact uploading is optional. People are expressly asked if they want to give permission to upload their contacts from their phone – it’s explained right there in the apps when you get started. People can delete previously uploaded information at any time and can find all the information available to them in their account and activity log from our Download Your Information tool.”

Here’s a guide on how to delete yourself off of Facebook.

Many have jumped on the bandwagon, including Elon Musk. He removed both Tesla and SpaceX’s pages from the platform, following a challenge from a Twitter user. This has blossomed into a larger movement that has begun to be known as #DeleteFacebook on the tweeting machine.

The market is already deciding. Facebook stocks are plummeting, and people are choosing that they are done with this. Yes, we agreed for them to do these things with our data when we signed the terms of service, and yes we have let Facebook walk all over us before. It is about time we stop. We reserve the right to not be consumers for Facebook and to encourage others to leave too.

As the FTC steps in, and we see the abhorrent actions of such an organization, it is critical that we take this opportunity to exercise our power as consumers within the market. Do your part, and take your data away from Facebook. Don’t let them use your data to allow companies to target you and exert subconscious influence upon you.

#DeleteFacebook


Featured Image Source.