Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When Is Manipulation, manipulation?

The Guardian's expose on the Cambridge Analytica scandal is both troubling and head-scratching all at the same time. Your initial reaction is, 'well, it wasn't me. I wasn't manipulated. I'm informed. They couldn't possibly have made me do what I didn't want to do, could they?' But then you step back and think about it a little bit and then you find yourself wondering: how vulnerable is the average person to manipulation online? Could it get you to change your vote? And if so...  is that cheating?

I took one class on political behavior as an undergraduate and now I wish that I had taken more, because it's fascinating and given the sheer size of the scandal about this data, it's incredibly relevant in our politics today. I think my political behavior professor lost me when he told us that there was a high correlation between how your parents vote and how you vote, to which I immediately thought: "Well, my Grandmother was a Tory council member in Leeds and my mother cast her first vote for the Communist Party just to annoy her and might be a secret radical socialist of some kind, while my father was a big supporter of unions and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament back in the 80s, came to America and somehow became a deep red Republican. So what the hell does that make me?"

Two decades ago, I think my professor's assertion would have held up just fine. The problem I think we have to confront is that the old framework for looking at politics has completely broken down. The Democratic Party's base used to be the blue collar, working class. But it also championed teacher's unions and access to affordable college for all, and as a result, over the years, that blue collar, working class base became more educated, more affluent, more urban and as a result, now the Democratic Party's base is more technocratic than anything else- which leaves openings for a politician like President Trump to go after those voters.

The collapse of media credibility in this country also doesn't help the cause either. At this point, if you turn on cable news, it doesn't matter which channel, what you're being spoon fed is probably garbage. It's just that everyone thinks they're entitled to their own facts and their own news that reinforces those facts, but the problem then becomes: how do you know what's true anymore? In the absence of 'reliable' mass media sources, people are going to go to the internet to get answers and anyone who has ever been on the internet will tell you that reliable sources are damn hard to find.

So, now Facebook stock is all aflutter and it might be in a wee bit of trouble. But here's the kicker, to me: all of this might lead to greater transparency on a variety of online fronts. And, to be honest, I think that's good. I'm a big believer in sunshine being the greatest disinfectant*, so it was heartening to see that the FEC was taking up the issue of online political ad transparency. But why stop there? Conservatives have been charging for months that they're being censored on a variety of social media platforms- but the question of who decides what's objectionable or not on these platforms seems to be the furthest thing from transparent. Companies should be required to tell consumers what they use your personal data for. They should be required to tell you the rules for their websites in a clear and transparent way: consumers should be able to know exactly what they're getting into when the sign up for a social media platform or use a search engine.

In general, the issue of online transparency isn't a huge deal breaker for me. I'm writing this on a blogging platform that's run by Google using Google Chrome as my browser and I'm probably going to get a Google Pixel here in a few weeks to replace my rapidly decaying Samsung Galaxy S5. As a consumer, I know Google and Facebook and Twitter are probably using my data somewhere in their systems. I know Google tweaks it's search engine results to tell me what I want to hear. I know all of this, but I also have the TOR Browser downloaded on my personal computer at home. I saw a random link on Twitter for a search engine called DuckDuckGo, checked it out and did a side by side search for the same thing with Google and it's not bullshit. You do get different results.

Right now, I take the path of least resistance for my online usage. Google is simple, because it's there. But the real key to ending this climate of #FakeNews that we live in isn't just greater transparency across the board. It's taking the time to educate yourself about the options available to you as a consumer. It's about trying search engines like DuckDuckGo. Or checking out platforms like Gab.ai. It's about reading multiple sources from multiple points of view to get some inkling of what the hell is going on in this crazy world. This isn't Walter Cronkite's newsroom anymore, kids. You've got to inform yourselves.

*If we can't get money out of politics (it'd be nice, but let's be real about this) then every single donation from the single penny to the Federal maximum needs to have a name attached to it. Ditto with the 503c groups. No more of this 'Americans For Whatever' bullshit. Who are you people?

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