There was a time around the dawn of the Internet that the coming age of global interconnectedness was heralded as a great boon for democracy, civility and peace worldwide. The utopian thinking of the early ’90s tech impresarios was an extension of the dominant trends in the classical liberal tradition on which most of them had been raised and educated: that more dialogue and communication among more people would foster greater understanding. Greater understanding would mean less violence. More free speech would mean more free people. Increased global trade and movement would inevitably result in nations merging as shared economic and social interests increased along with them. National boundaries would eventually dissolve as people across the planet realized how much alike they all truly were. Governments would crumble and the need for top-down authority mechanisms would vanish as people turned to services and help from each other through “the net” instead of looking to state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded bureaucracies and police. As one human family, we would all go skipping joyously down the technicolored rainbow-road of zeros and ones, joined virtually hand-in-hand through our various devices, off into an infinity of increasing freedom, liberty and prosperity. Humanity’s great potential would be realized at last.

Fat chance.

Not that all early techies ascribed to this millenarian vision in such fanatical terms, but similarly idealistic thinking is evident in Facebook’s mission statement: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and in Google’s “About” page: “...our goal has been to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible. Not just for some. For everyone.” Twenty-three years after Netscape became the first Internet company to offer a publicly traded stock, it is evident that something has gone wrong, terribly wrong — and that this vision of a techno-utopia, or even a vision of technology bettering society in some material way — is nothing short of the greatest bait-and-switch scheme of all time.

So what went wrong, exactly? By now everyone has heard of the explosive allegations of Christopher Wylie, the data-guru who claims to have invented “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mind f*ck tool” while working at Cambridge Analytica, the shady London-based firm who employed highly targetted digital “advertising” tools for the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns. Wylie alleges that Cambridge Analytica was able to “harvest” the Facebook profiles of 50 million and “touch” the profiles of 120 million unwitting Americans through covert means. They created detailed psychological profiles on each individual voter and, through an algorithm, pushed deeply divisive and vitriolic propaganda on unsuspecting users of these social media platforms. The results? The upheaval of Western civilization and the crumbling of democratic norms across the world.

Wylie, a Canadian, who had previously worked for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party and the UK’s Liberal Democrats before getting mixed up in the founding of Cambridge Analytica — flippantly declared in his interview with the Guardian: “If you want to fundamentally change society, you first have to break it.” He also identifies as both gay and a vegan, and at first glance it would seem like Wylie would have difficulty rectifying his decidedly liberal personal views with the largely homophobic, bigoted and authoritarian views of the Trump administration, Steve Bannon, and lots of the Brexiteers of Britain.

 


Upon closer examination of Steve Bannon, however, the overlap becomes apparent. Bannon, who was steeped in Hollywood liberalism from which he rebelled (or was rejected), calls himself a “Leninist” who wants to “destroy the state.” Himself being one of those multi-millionaire elitist “rootless cosmopolitans” with deep ties to the movie industry he so often maligns, he has a knack for creating advertisements rife with kitschy Hollywood-esque motifs. Replete with deep militaristic voices, scrolling block letters, and suggestive imagery in some cases; and with images of bright sunny skies, open fields, and cheerful voices in others — none of which would be out of place in the almost self-satrical previews shown before a blockbuster action film — Bannon was able to create hackneyed although highly effective advertising to deliver directly to micro-audiences through Facebook and to ultimately persuade them based on their individual “psychometrics” that had been acquired by the firm.

The science on these psychometrics is intense. Based on what a person likes and shares on Facebook, these algorithms have been shown to predict a person’s personality traits with greater accuracy than a person’s close friends can, and just a few percentage points shy of a person’s spouse. Cambridge Analytica then used this information to “exploit” (in the words of Wylie) a person’s deepest fears, hopes and motivations. Orwellian doesn’t come close to describing the magnitude of this invasion of our privacy and the ramifications it has for our civil liberties, or our rights as citizens altogether.

I have worked for political campaigns in the past. I knock on a lot of doors and try to convince people who are total strangers to vote a certain way without knowing much about them. People are oftentimes skeptical of me at their door. They want to know how I got their names and addresses, how I know what their registered party is, or their phone number, or their email. The truth is, the state provides some of this information — any campaign can access voter rolls for door-to-door or mass-mail purposes — and the rest is gathered through hard work: walking up to people in public, giving a heartfelt pitch, and asking for their support and contact information. Some more complex demographic information is sometimes used, but the fact remains, it still takes some honest work and in most cases some degree of real conviction in one’s personal beliefs to go talk to people in person. If I showed up at a door and people knew I was using an individualized script tailored directly to them, gleaned through stolen Facebook data, designed to subtly tug on their heartstrings, trigger their unspoken fears, and evoke their highest aspirations, all ultimately to manipulate them for a vote — they would be outraged. It’s feasible that in the not-too-distant future unscrupulous campaigns will employ such tactics. For now most campaigns who bother to send people out on doors are relying on the persuasive value inherent in real person-to-person interactions.

It’s time that we as citizens demand that we have rights over that data that is being “harvested” from us, and then being “exploited” to manipulate us a certain way. Facebook has some tools built in it to allow users to limit what information third parties can obtain, but the fact is most people who would use these settings are probably smart enough not to fall for the manipulative tactics and messaging employed by firms such as Cambridge Analytica in the first place. If this were any other industry, there would be global boycotts and bans. Are we as citizens so subjugated to the technological age that we are willing to sacrifice our agency over our own data, our privacy, and our personalities, and ultimately our government? I don’t know, but I will commit not to sharing this column on Facebook. If you’ve read thus far, congratulations on picking up a copy of The Free Press in print.