I read an article this morning that scared me, making me wonder if all the activism is for not. Maybe we are just spinning our wheels, fighting against a system that is rigged such that we “appear” to be making a difference but in reality, we are just feeding more information in that will be used against us later?
I won’t recommend it as the way to begin a Saturday morning but the headline was misleading. The Guardian article by Carole Cadwalladr looked innocuous enough, “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media,” but I wasn’t very many paragraphs into it when a realization came over me that we are all screwed. Or at least, I’m smart enough to know I’m screwed but not smart enough to know what to do to stop it—beyond pulling up stakes, getting rid of all electronics, and heading to the woods (if I could still find them without my electronic maps and if they exist, given the new government’s desire to destroy the environment.)
The article begins with Trump’s argument that the news is all “fake,” which I’ve been naively attributing to some kind of fascist/dictator ploy to discredit the news and substitute a “Trump”-approved version of “reality.” I used to think that was horrible, throwing us back to some kind of Hitleresque version of the world.
Now, I miss that simplistic view that could be combatted by a diligent citizenry.
What I’ve learned instead is that Robert Mercer and a group of others like him who have obscene amounts of money, an extreme conservative agenda, and the smarts to pull it off have formed a slow coup to essentially model the world and all the people in it into whatever they want. And we are giving them all the information and data to make it happen.
That’s right—they don’t have to work for the data. We are just giving it to them with every click, every like, and every smiley-face we contribute to any online social media site.
I vaguely knew this was happening in regards to selling me “stuff.” I mean, I look at Travelocity for a hotel in New York and then flip over to Facebook and find AirBNB ads for the city. A coincidence? Not likely. Bots and cookies and other cute little acronyms were following my clicks showing me information it knew I wanted. I was seeing only the ads that aligned with my personal views and tastes.
I also knew that the my news feeds were being specifically narrowed down to mimic my own world-view and that I had to go outside those channels to find “other” news. I don’t want to read only things that reinforce what I already think—I want to be challenged in my ways of thinking. All critical thinking people do. But I had to go and search for that information because analytics and algorithms were pinning me down into a tiny little box.
What I hadn’t given any real thought to was how this type of personalization was being used to not only “sell” me stuff and, perhaps, influence the election, but to actually alter reality.
Truth is relative. A phrase thrown around in undergrad departments that tends to shock the eighteen year old but if that maxim is true, and Cadwalladr seems to argue in her article that it is and is being put to use, we are all in trouble. At least those of us who value critical thought and multiple viewpoints and lean toward social justice, because Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, and a select group of others are not just trying to “sell” us stuff or even ideas anymore. They are determined to radically remake what we believe to be TRUE.
They are doing it by harnessing the data we are giving them through social media and combining it with emotions. The two create an irresistible weapon of propaganda.
As Cadwalladr argues, “We are the bounty: our social media feeds; our conversations; our hearts and minds. Our votes. Bots influence trending topics and trending topics have a powerful effect on algorithms . . . on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. Know how to manipulate information structure and you can manipulate reality.”
Now how do we fight that?
Cadwalladr, Carole. “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media.” Retried from: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage