Last night BBC2 aired part two of the documentary Secrets of Silicon Valley, subtitled ‘The persuasion machine’. by Jonathan Bartlett.
The programme charted the rise of the modern Tech giants, many of which are not traditional ‘product or services’ companies in the sense we have become used to. For example, Facebook, one of the main subjects of the programme, is viewed as not only a social network but one of the world’s largest publishers of information. Yet, Facebook actually originates nothing, rather providing a world-wide platform within which others – us – publish our thoughts and, increasingly, emotions, to a network of our ‘friends’… or those we seek to influence.
The word ’emotions’, above, is the key to much of what followed in the programme. Recent motivational studies, representing the cutting edge of how people (we) can be psychologically profiled – put into data silos of opinion and response – have shown that there are two ways in which the human mind absorbs and responds to information.
The first is what we might call emotive: ‘I just know that’s true’ or ‘yes, I’ve always felt that way’. The second is more considered, and uses more rational parts of our brain and mind to self-question our assumptions.
Specialists have found that the first category of what we might call ‘triggers’ are the basis for mass response and are capable of nudging the opinions of millions in a certain direction; particularly in an age when many feel dissatisfied with their lot. The message is everything…
So, now, imagine we can change the message, tuning, say, it’s Facebook layout so that a red button is used instead of a green one; a slightly more aggressive image instead of a subtle one; and that we can do this in hundreds of thousands of variations in real-time… each of them tuned to the selection of the human silo that I, as a well-funded advertiser, want to reach with my message, like, for example, being President of the USA.
The vast majority of the $85 million dollars spent on Donald Trump’s election campaign was spent within a secretive and unmarked building in Texas which became know as ‘Project Alamo’. The money was spent on Facebook ads in the way described above. The name ‘Project Alamo’ was inadvertently brought to the Trump elections campaign by an English company – Cambridge Analytica – who had been employed by Ted Cruz’s failed campaign to win the Republican nomination. Cambridge Analytica transferred the vast profiling work they had been doing, code-named ‘Alamo’, to Donald Trump’s presidential programme… and the name stuck.
Tens of thousands of permutations of presentation of each story were broadcast at tens of millions of Facebook subscribers (us) as the US election and, later, the UK’s Referendum gathered pace.
In both cases, the use of social networking platforms was central to campaigns that changed the way we are governed. In both cases the result was a shift of control to a more right-wing basis for our daily lives in which racism, among other dark things, now flourishes more openly.
These campaigns focus on dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is one of the emotive triggers referred to in the opening paragraphs, above. Show someone poor who believes that a billionaire can be on their side a generalised emotive ‘trigger advert’ in their social media feed and they might doubt it. Show them the same advert tailored exactly for them by the new world of opinion analytics and enough of them will respond to vote with their bruised instincts, even though the other side of their brains might doubt it…
The data that provides such exact matching to our emotive triggers is what we give the social media platforms every time we click on a Facebook Like. In the BBC 2 programme, the producer, Jonathan Bartlett, is seen receiving his sifted profile from one of the leading psychologists in the USA. “But I didn’t tell anyone I was a Catholic,” he says. The psychologist nods, agreeing. In this new world he didn’t need to, his actions, preferences and ‘likes’, gathered by Facebook and made available to targeted campaigns for everything from products to presidents, is there to be acted on if you have the money. Sifted and summarised the inference engine showed him to be Catholic, whether he liked it or not
The programme also highlighted the contradictions in all this. In general, Silicon Valley does not vote for Republicans. Older footage showed President Obama (the USA’s first ‘social media’ president) talking with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They were singing each other’s praises. Today there is a very different mood, and Barack Obama is one of the voices calling for very much tighter control of the content of social media sites – and naming Facebook as a prime example of a company that needs to address this. Senior Facebook technicians and analysts were on-site in the Project Alamo building, helping the Trump campaign, spend the lion’s share of their $85M wisely; yet, Silicon Valley, in general, did not want Trump as President.
Of intense concern to social media companies is the proposed challenging of the 1996 Telecommunications bill in the USA. This contained a vital clause that the providers of a social media platform could not be held responsible for the legality or accuracy of the content. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are now disputing this, and citing many examples where social media companies have failed to ‘self-police’.
The Tech giants are spending billions in Washington, trying to get this killed off and promoting their own ‘myth’ that they are Disruptors whose ultimate effect is good. See part one of this series of posts for more details. The frightening thing is that, having opened Pandora’s box, they are no more in control of all this than we are.
I will conclude this personal review of the new world of ‘democratic manipulation’ next week, with an examination of what value the mere human has left, and whether we have any effective responses left to us in this tsunami of manipulation. We live in a very frightening age…
Other part of this series: Part One,
To be concluded in Part Three
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com