Disinformation and the Manipulable

Politicians, preachers, and other charlatans have long known people were manipulable. They had achieved their mastery of the craft of manipulation by observation and practice. By craft, they were con artists. In another sense, they were psychologists before there was such. Before 1860, psychology was a branch of philosophy. A German, Wilhelm Wundt, was one of the first to proclaim psychology a science in its own right and the first to proclaim himself a psychologist (around 1879). Just seventeen years later, in 1896, psychology was being used in advertising (marketing).

Today’s Social Media is much a consequence of the advent of the internet; the internet itself being a consequence of the advent of personal computers (PCs). Social media’s actual roots date back to ~1960; preceded PCs. That is to say, Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t the inventor. In 2004, he stole the ball from people like the Ablesons, some Russians, Jonathan Abrams, Reid Hoffman, PayPal, Ramu Yalamanchi, …, and has been running with it ever since. Stealing is too harsh. Fairer to say, Mark, as many another before, stood on the shoulders of giants. Soon after his startup of Facebook, others such as Yahoo, Twitter, …, and Google Plus showed up with their own ball, started playing.

In 2001, Google invented something that was to be later named ‘surveillance capitalism‘ by Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, in 2014. In 2001, Google made online information available to everyone in exchange for their personal data. Zuckerberg’s twist was to provide everyone a social platform in exchange for their personal data. Both were mining for our personal data which they sold on the open market. In some form or another, all social media platforms/information providers are miners of personal data. And, yes, there is a reason for finding this all a bit familiar. Bitcoin was anonymously started in 2008.

Professor Zuboff defined surveillance capitalism as: “ the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” The Data Rush was on. After Google’s strike in 2001, Facebook et al were simply claim jumpers with new scams, er methods, for mining. Personal data was worth its weight in gold, and more. Advertisers gobbled it up. With such info, they could pinpoint marketing. Political campaigns would buy it because it provided access to specific demographics for different aspects of their spiel; a means to even message individuals. The data mining industry was born. The economy of manipulating the manipulable was booming.

Adding in psychology, and technology: Advertisers could tailor their ads to and aim them at the individual buyer. Politicians could now tell the individual voter what they were most likely to believe. Foreign powers could involve themselves in another nation’s politics. The market for all this personal data was infinite. At least huge!

What could possibly go wrong? For humankind, a lot. The con-men knew that we were manipulable and we knew they were going to give it a try. Back then, all rather a game of cat and mouse. A little sleight of hand and a few purloined phrases were all they had against our slow wits. These days, data miners are employing lots of very smart people who are using very large and powerful computers with really smart algorithms (AI). How well does Facebook know you? Amy says. “After 10 likes, better than colleagues. After 70 likes, better than friends. After 150 likes, better than family. And after 300 likes, better than your partner or spouse.”

Now, perhaps knowing more about us than we knew about ourselves, and, using psychology along with disinformation and misinformation, marketers can appeal to even our subconscious;. Grossly over-matched; we, our kids, our democracy, and the nation are at risk. We are in need of protection.

Disinformation and misinformation have been around forever but were never so effective as they are when coupled with very accessible social media. The effective Fox News on in every Mcdonald’s has been eclipsed by a handful of skillful manipulators on Facebook. Indeed, the effectiveness of Fox News and Newsmax has been greatly enhanced by social media. Social media is a great multiplier for disinformation and misinformation.

A great launderer, too. When a posting of disinformation on Facebook or Twitter is picked up and read as a news story by Fox News and is later repeated on the NewsHour; it has been successfully laundered. Whence cometh this news you provide us? No one knows.

Unfortunately, using disinformation and misinformation to manipulate the manipulable was too tempting; has become all too common in this age of information. Regulation is obviously needed. Unfortunately, our constitution is of another time, Section 230 of the Communication Act is as toothless as was intended, and Congress has been all too slow to act. Frances Haugen’s powerful October 5, 2021, Senate testimony was a ray of hope that something will finally be done. She even suggests a model.

Ours, the world’s economy is a new, never seen before one. In this new economy, software is a manufactured product, our personal data a raw material made available to the highest bidder for whatever purposes. In an interview, Professor Zuboff describes surveillance capitalism as, “an economic system centered around the commodification of personal data with the core purpose of profit-making.” She goes on to describe how the concept of surveillance capitalism arose as advertising companies, led by Google’s AdWords, saw the possibilities of using personal data to target consumers more precisely. Observed that, “ While industrial capitalism exploited and controlled nature with devastating consequences, surveillance capitalism exploits and controls human nature with a totalitarian order as the endpoint.”

Seems surveillance capitalism creates wants (demand); doesn’t produce anything else. Just now the supply side is coming from China. The social media companies themselves have greatly contributed to the growing disparity. Little doubt that this increase in wants in a time of great disparity has contributed to the increase in personal debt. A lot of doubt that surveillance capitalism has done anything to diminish disparity. In the high-tech regions of America, the rents have been pushed up so high that many tech company employees themselves can no longer afford them.

For what shall it profit mankind, if a few shall gain great wealth from something that damages so many of its young, and costs it its democracy. Today, disinformation and social media, acting in concert, employed by the nefarious and the greedy, are a real threat to mankind. Facebook alone is responsible for many, many deaths, the weakening of democracies. The US Congress, all world governments, acting in concert, need act quickly to establish rules for the collection, marketing, and usage of personal data. Then, they need to strictly enforce them.

In this Age of Information, the US Congress, all world governments, acting in concert, need act quickly, to establish rules against the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation