The intersection of innovations in data collection, tracking, and online advertising has created a novel situation in which the public is vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous advertisers and hostile foreign actors. In order for we as citizens to understand and take appropriate action, we need to start with an understanding of what information is being collected about us and how it is being used. From there it will be possible to tell what, if any, further regulation might be necessary. I, personally, think that this step should be all that’s needed.
We need a regulation paralleling the Fair Credit Reporting Act that allows us to discover 1) what data has been compiled on us and 2) who is using it and when.
This is particularly true for political advertising.
The companies that sell access to us including Facebook and Twitter, but, also, the Agencies that track our browsing history via cookies or feeds from our (now unregulated) Internet Providers need to make available information on what they are tracking about us and how it is being used.
My Sample Letter
As you are undoubtedly aware, there has been significant Russian influence on United States politics via social media.
We can currently see our what credit companies have on us, whether accurate or not, and when that information is used.
It has become no less vital that we can see what data points the companies selling advertising have collected about us and how that is being used! This is particularly the case for political ads. An understanding of what is being collected, how, and why is the essential first step.
California would be the ideal state to pioneer this legislation requiring this due to it’s role in the tech economy and the resources available to us.
EU countries have had data protection laws in place since the late 90’s and their experience would be a good starting point. See Wikipedia here and here for an intro.
Here’s a few excellent articles that deal with the full extent of the problem and predate the recent ‘discoveries’. It’s much bigger that a few Facebook ads.
I’ve been trying in this essay to stay carefully neutral on the Right / Left thing although I’ll cheerfully admit to being on the Left.
One has to ask why Russia supports alt-right movements not just in the US but across a broad range of Western democracies?
Russia, which views open societies and functioning democracies as a threat.
A point of interest is the easy alignment between Russian oligarchs and Republican operatives. (Although, I’m not sure both sides have the same level of insight into what it is they’re doing.)
Quite frankly, when the Soviet Union went away and Bush the First declared a peace dividend, I figured Republican Party would dissolve and that most Democrats and Republican’s would peel off into some center right party leaving me and those of like mind happily occupying the fringe Left. Having to be moderate is really not much fun.
I underestimated the Republican big wigs.
If the core mission of your party is making the rich richer, you need tricks to get elected. Fear and sowing division are the most effective tricks. I watched in amazement as the Republicans, post Soviet Union, pulled boogie after boogie out of their hat starting with gay guys in San Francisco and ending now apparently with an UN/US secret agreement to round up patriots and take their AK-47s.
Well, the GOP should be happy. The Rooskies are back, big time…but they seem to be on the side of the Republicans. Life is weird.
PS, not all Republicans are big wigs, of course, particularly in South Dakota where I grew up.
30 years ago I considered the Republicans the party of choice for folks I enjoyed arguing with about the appropriate role and size of public sector.
At this point, given their more or less complete capture by the oil industry, the GOP has morphed into an existential threat to the human species. I’m hoping my friends on the right are noticing that.
Text and images below from The Agency, Adrian Chen, New York Times Magazine.
On 9/11/2014, the Columbian Chemical plant near Centerville, LA, appeared to have exploded.
Locals received text messages: “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM. Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”
Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted.
The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.
Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster.
Some included screenshots of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news.
ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion.
In December of 2014 the same accounts touted a fake Ebola disaster at the Atlanta, GA, airport. Simultaneously, a different set of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been killed by police again in Atlanta.
Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
A great place to start is Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, particularly Chapter 8: “The Bowling Alley in History: Measuring the Decline in Social Capital”. He considers various definitions of social cohesion, what he terms asabiya, and an provides as an example an eye-opening look at the quite different societies of northern vs southern Italy.
What is being discussed is the degree to which all members of a society assume common purpose.
What are measures of disaffection? What’s the assumed social contract and how widely is it shared? What happens to societies when common purpose dissolves or is destroyed?
Amazon’s paragraph book summary does a decent job: “The main driver of inequality—returns on capital that exceed the rate of economic growth—is again threatening to generate extreme discontent and undermine democratic values.”
Quoted in the New Yorker, “Piketty notes, the level of inequality in the United States is ‘probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.’
To get a grasp on this we need some immediate transparency.
We currently have the right to see our credit data and when it is used. It is no less vital to know when some enterprise is selling our stats to advertisers. We need the ability to find out ‘what they have on us’ and how they’re using it …particularly since it seems pretty easy for anyone, no matter how fucked up their purpose, to purchase ad space embedded in our social stream.
Making this information available to each of us individually would be the most effective engine of change. We could see how and why we were targeted and by whom. It would have the advantage letting us take subsequent steps from an informed position.
There’s Legislation in Europe that does this but not in the US.
California, Massachusetts, or New York would be great places to start. Let’s race!
Assume that the enemy’s key attack point is where they see or most significant vulnerability. They’re primarily attacking solidarity, looking to create hopelessness, and dissolve the type of social cohesion that leads us to seek broad solutions. The Russian operations are teaching us that these are key points to defend.
Strengthen the Tribe; Build Bridges
Since the enemy’s key attack point is where they see our most significant vulnerability and they’re primarily attacking solidarity…trying to dissolve the type of social cohesion that leads us to seek broad collective solutions…that is where we defend.
First we can take the easy step of defending by strengthening the tribe to buffer it against future fractures. Take the time to cultivate your real world connection with friends and family. We’re a tribal species. This part is essential to our cultural, collective, and individual health and it is the antidote to letting ourselves be driven into isolated hopelessness and become ineffective cultural and political actors.
Then comes the hard part: building bridges. This requires us to assume common ground with folks where that assumption can seem a stretch. Yet there are folks of decent intent on all sides of most issues and, important to note, while the most extreme examples of a position are the most visible, they’re not the most numerous.
70% of the folks on any particular ‘side’ have a nuanced and rational position that is open to dialog, and an instinct to meet folks halfway. The concept of ‘sides’ is in itself non-helpful. Most folks likely agree with you on other significant political and cultural issues even if they go another route on some. (We might want to save putting effort into the other 30% until a bit down the road:-).
Let’s make a pact to assume we’re all good guys until we’ve figured out a way to frustrate the enemy. They want us at each other throats. Once we’ve got that out of the way we can go back to being amazed at how misguided everyone else is.
The social media post or news item that disgusts, outrages, or depresses you might be designed to do precisely that. In fact, it probably is, whether the intent is your demoralization or simply getting clicks. Awareness of that can help. It is likely going forward that the more effective you are, the more you’ll be a target.
Here and in the point below, disrupt your initial reaction. Disconnect, take a walk, sit zazen, wait 24 hours before hitting send…then act.
Everyone loves outrage. Heck, I love outrage. The Right uses it as motor. The Left likes a good wallow. Without getting into ego, politics, and contaminated emotion, I think we need to give it up. It’s been eaten by the Grey Goo! It hurts us as it pretends to provide value. We are more manipulable but not more politically effective. It dissolves opportunities for common ground and erodes dialog.
Seek Unmediated Experience
It can be a beautiful thing to dance all night in an evil time.
– Micheal Ventura, Shadow Dancing in the USA
If the information flow is manipulating you, get out of the flow. This is part signal jamming and part reset. Look for the things that give us back to ourselves: nature, dance, art, ‘non-ordinary’ experiences that take us out and then return us more complete, communal cooking, nature, friends / connections…to each their own. Anything done with a tribe gets bonus points.
The articles in section 2 above give pointers. Here’s another resource:
Yet science is the best engine we have for separating the wheat from the chaff. Being 25 years past what would be my likely pre-science expiration date, I’m a big fan of science.
The key is a better understanding of how science works as a grand long-term project, i.e. go with skepticism but avoid ignorance. I’ve got a more extended look at that here. Hint, a deeper look at how science works and the models behind climate science make it pretty clear that ‘climate skepticism’ is mostly ignorance and not honest informed skepticism.
Big Boat Religion
In a world of Us vs Them there are clear religious mandates for broad inclusiveness…at least in the religions I know enough about to offer comment. Christianity’s core is (should be) love God and love your neighbor…with a clear Big Boat definition of neighbor. (I consider the use of Christianity as a tool of division to be blasphemy.) Mahayana Buddhism is almost literally Big Boat religion and seeks the enlightenment of all sentient beings. More recent religious geniuses such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King tell us that no one is free until all are free.
Considering our survival now depends on our finding broad common cause with all sentient beings, they might just have had a point.