In order to proceed, we must first acknowledge the more than three decades of work by a man who has been sounding the alarm concerning the dangers of media organizations manipulating information for the purpose of influencing opinions and behaviors. His name is Noam Chomsky and his two ground-breaking books, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989) concerning political power using the “propaganda model” to distort and distract, maintain confusion and complicity in order to subvert the processes of democratic societies set the tone for what is currently taking place in the world today.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal gave the entire world a glimpse into the misuse of our personal online data and information and how it is effecting our lives. It showed us how being a connected world engaging one another across vast distances has been manipulated into a scenario of how technology can be used to harm us. How all of our web interactions, likes, dislikes, friend’s list, personal wishes and desires are all collected in real time, attached to our identities and sold to buyers who want access to our emotional impulses. With this knowledge, buyers compete for our attention, targeting us with a steady stream of content to “pursuade” and “convince” us to think and do what they want us to do. These small pieces of our realities are filtered and the data from our online activity is being warehoused as part of a trillion dollar a year industry. Our realities are being bought and sold and we do not even know it is happening. The dream of a connected world has been turned into a connected nightmare, at least for many of us.
The recent documentary The Great Hack brings this reality front and center to our attention. In the case of Cambridge Analytica’s, Brittany Kaiser and Chris Wylie (two ex-employees of the company), they made it particularly clear that “behavior change agencies” started out as a “grossly unethical experiment” and terminated with the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. They spoke about how the company operated with the information of an entire country without people’s consent and how most people had no idea their data was being taken and used in that way. They gave testimony into how people willfully give up information about what they think and do and how this information was used by the company as a gateway into people’s personalities. The company worked on the premise that personality drives behavior and behavior determines how we will vote.
Another key player in this too real for TV drama and how it secretly worked in the dark recesses of internet obscurity is David Carroll. From a traditional perspective, it usually only takes one brave soul to stand up and challenge the abuses of power and David Carroll (a professor of digital media) is the hero of this story. Not only did he pursue legal approachs to demand that his personal data be returned to him but he followed the trail to the United Kingdom and became involved with the investigative journalism of Carol Cadwalladr and Paul Hilder. These five individuals exposed a highly secretive strategy that conducts large scale analysis of people’s data and uses researach to influence their behavior. “They send out data and it comes back to them as targeted data messaging for the purpose of changing one’s behavior. They bombard people through blogs, websites, audio, video and ads on every platform imaginable. They are able to persuade people to see the world the way they want them to.”
Perhaps, the most crucial objective of this strategy is their effectiveness in being able to detect people that are undecided about what they will do, who they will choose or what they will select. “They target their efforts on those people whose minds they think they can change – they call them the persuadables; and then they try to persuade them to go one way or the other.” From a technical viewpoint, Chris Wylie reveals their techniques; “…they use status updates, likes, private messages, artificial intelligence and data mining from social media platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.” He points out how these firms only need to survey a few hundred thousand people to build a psychological profile. “Not only do they use personal data but they use individual friend networks targeting people with digital video content of all sorts.”
David Carroll and his pursuit for personal rights shows us that “the crime lies in the contravention of people’s human rights.” And for this, he continues his quest for justice. But what are some of the lessons we can learn from this experience? Some people say our only salvation lies in limiting the amount of information we put online. Caroll believes we must find out where our data is and what is being done with it. Also, he advocates that we must find ways to see inside the system – read the terms and conditions of the software we use and download; limit our participation in online surveys and questionnaires; update privacy settings in Facebook and Twitter; disable and turn off services that spy on us particulrly with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple applications; monitor our settings for artificial intelligences programs like Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. All these programs have ways of saving protected content that can be manipulated. In an age when authoritarian governments are on the rise and they are using the politics of fear and hate and where information has become weapons grade technology, we must effectively learn to protect ourselves from a new kind of threat – communications warfare.
Also see, Perspectives – October 2016 – The War Against Privacy.
The Great Hack. Dir. Karem Amer, Jehane Noujaim. Perf. Brittany Kaiser, David Carroll, Paul-Oliver Dehaye, Ravi Naik, Julian Wheatland, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Hilder, Alex the bodyguard, Emma Graham-Harrison, Gill Phillips, Sarah Donaldson, and Roger McNamee. Netflix. 2019.