Doctorow makes a useful distinction I wish I’d grasped years ago, the difference between persuasion and targeting.
The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.
Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.
Remember that elections are generally knife-edge affairs, even for politicians who’ve held their seats for decades with slim margins: 60% of the vote is an excellent win. Remember, too, that the winner in most races is “none of the above,” with huge numbers of voters sitting out the election. If even a small number of these non-voters can be motivated to show up at the polls, safe seats can be made contestable. In a tight race, having a cheap way to reach all the latent Klansmen in a district and quietly inform them that Donald J. Trump is their man is a game-changer.
Cambridge Analytica are like stage mentalists: they’re doing something labor-intensive and pretending that it’s something supernatural. A stage mentalist will train for years to learn to quickly memorize a deck of cards and then claim that they can name your card thanks to their psychic powers. You never see the unglamorous, unimpressive memorization practice. Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook to find racist jerks and tell them to vote for Trump and then they claim that they’ve discovered a mystical way to get otherwise sensible people to vote for maniacs.
I’m thinking about all those times I agreed to debates with creationists, and I’d show up at the venue to see church buses lined up outside and a crowd of people clutching Bibles filling the seats. There was no hope that I’d convince them (OK, maybe I deluded myself that I’d win over a few), and really, my role was to play the heel at a fixed match, to draw in the congregation to listen to the face, who got all the adulation. That really got to me at one event, held in a fairly swanky hotel ballroom, where afterwards the preacher who’d brought me in told the audience that my antagonist was staying in a suite there, that they were going to have a dinner with select donors, and that he’d be staying in town to speak at the church the next few days. Then he took me aside, gave me a check for $100, and told me there was a Motel 6 just down the road.
The creationists were smarter than I was. They knew these events weren’t intended to inform or educate; the debate was all about rallying a crowd, drawing in more true believers who wanted to see that university egghead taught a lesson — and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t crushed, because they’d gather together all the conservative Christians and they’d find each other. It’s both sides, too. Debates at atheist events are also a sham, primarily about grooming a particular audience rather than teaching anything new.
Doctorow is focused on politics and the media, but it’s the same old story. The goal isn’t to persuade, it’s to align people with a gang.
He also sees through the game of advertising. How often have you seen a stupid, repetitive commercial and thought to yourself, “What a waste of time, I’m too smart to be fooled by this BS.” Advertisers don’t care. They’re just trying to efficiently glean out the few who are fooled, and tools like Facebook are there to make it easier to sort the profitable wheat from the chaff (and in this game, you’re the chaff.)
It’s fashionable to treat the dysfunctions of social media as the result of the naivete of early technologists, who failed to foresee these outcomes. The truth is that the ability to build Facebook-like services is relatively common. What was rare was the moral recklessness necessary to go through with it.
The thing is, it’s always been obvious that by spying on internet users, you could improve the efficacy of advertising. That’s not so much because spying gives you fantastic insights into new ways to convince people to buy products as it is a tribute to just how ineffective marketing is. When an ad’s expected rate of success is well below one percent, doubling or tripling its efficacy still leaves you with a sub-one-percent conversion rate.
But it was also obvious from the start that amassing huge dossiers on everyone who used the internet could create real problems for all of society that would dwarf the minute gains these dossiers would realize for advertisers.
Now look at the recent elections in this country. Donald Trump didn’t persuade anyone — he can’t, because he’s a bumbling incompetent — he just used the tools provided by media like Facebook and Twitter to pick out and target the 70 million who could be fooled effectively and get them to think that Trump is the widget they must buy, and got them all engaged in a great big gang that would make Trump the focus of their identity.
We may have gotten rid of Trump, but those 70 million are still out there, and Facebook still has extensive dossiers on enough of them to steer them in whatever directions Zuckerberg feels is most profitable.