There is a tsunami of data that is about to crash over our democracy, our personal lives, and presage the possibility of more hatred, divisiveness and fear overwhelming our country and the world.
Actually, the tide has already receded, making the appearance of the next wave imminent. Many people felt that the 2016 election was somehow “fishy” and that the reality television personality could not possibly win election to the presidency; however, he did by less than 80,000 votes in three states. The 2020 election is ripe for an even more sophisticated attack. How did this happen?
This is the part that many will find impossible to believe. Sorry, but I must quote Mark Twain again: “It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them they have been fooled.” This adage can apply to me as well as to many others. Most of us are susceptible to being manipulated, misled, and made to believe that an untruth is in fact a truth. The examples are legion – the birther movement, climate change deniers, windmills cause cancer, millions of illegal voters, and the list goes on; however, the manipulation of the citizens of the United States as well as Britain is carefully outlined in a Netflix documentary called “The Great Hack.”
In this movie, the inner workings of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a now-defunct business from Britain, are made clear. This business gathered data from Facebook and then “mined” the data to develop profiles of millions of individuals in the United States and Britain. Data included personal information of all kinds, where people ate, who their friends are, what religious interests they have, things they have “liked” on Facebook, as well as products purchased, songs listened to, and the list is unfortunately almost endless. Apparently as many as 87 million Facebook users’ data was shared with CA.
You may ask, “Who cares?” because it may seem insignificant to you that someone knows where you shop and what you buy. It only seems relatively unimportant until you realize that if the bad actors have enough data points on an individual, they can begin to influence that individual’s behavior, well beyond sending ads they think might be of interest to the target person. There is evidence that the data points (about 5,000 per person) that CA had on Facebook participants were then used to target political ads, blog posts and fake news to sway the opinion of the participant. It may have swayed you.
Given the power of computers to sort and sift through data, we should not be lulled into a sense of safety by what might seem like way too much information. Computers don’t view trillions of bits of information as too much. Every time we use our cell phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops, ATMs and any other internet-connected device, we are leaving an electronic trail that does not just disappear. In most ways I think we should no longer assume we have any privacy anywhere or anytime. Just because we live in these small foothill communities, does not mean we are any safer than citizens who live in San Francisco or New York.
I believe the most difficult aspect of this whole information invasion is convincing people that they can be manipulated. Paraphrasing Twain, we are easier to fool than to make us believe someone has actually manipulated us. I like to think I am a relatively intelligent and thoughtful person, and would recognize if I was being manipulated. Just because I am able to ignore almost all ads that have been targeted at me, I don’t ignore every single one. I am also a sucker for “clickbait” ads, so I am sure I have been manipulated and must remain ever more vigilant to avoid it in the future.
If we don’t see how the forces of hate and division are making fiction seem true, we are in danger of watching our democratic experiment explode. Then fascism may take charge and our freedoms will begin to dissipate. It is my hope that we as a nation and as a community won’t let that happen. Check out “The Great Hack,” which is scarier than most documentaries. And remember, the truth is not an enemy of the people.
Kevin Wychopen is a semiretired school counselor and columnist for the Enterprise. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.