With political powers, dictators raising, cyber-threats intensively increasing and nation sponsored propaganda machines and troll agencies always present, we need to improve several things with the Internet of today. We need to take back control over our personal data, stop misleading information and become more transparent.
It has been quite here on the blog for a while, there are several reasons for that, but one of the more important ones are that I have been struggling with what is happening with the Internet of today. The last several years, disinformation, propaganda and fake news / alternative facts have almost entirely taken over the flow of news and important information about the society we live in and the world in general. When you start to investigate this you realize how perfected the system is and how much impact it really has.
This is not about Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Bannon, Sverigedemokraterna or Robert Mercer. They are just using the tools available at hand to reach their goals. It is how several components work together.
When I wrote “The system” I actually came to think about the book The Circle (which soon will premiere as a movie with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks), which actually touches this subject as well.
The System I am referring to here is much more than Trump and Russian (or US for that matter) propaganda and / or nation-wide hacking, it is more about how we consume information today and how the companies providing this information does not have any incitement to prevent this from happening, the opposite actually. The more times we click on these links the more money they make.
Facebook and Google make a living of presenting information they think we want, now that organizations, countries, brands, politicians and individuals have found ways to use this information to manipulate us, it is has become a flawed system.
Revenue makes this system tick
I will use Facebook as an example, but this is not isolated to Facebook in any way.
- Facebook is an ad-tech company. Their business model is to provide tools for advertisers to put the advertising company’s information on the screens of a very targetted audience and charge money for that service.
- User targeting. The success of Facebooks ad-tech is in two major parts. The first is the amount of personal data we have given to Facebook (does not matter how much you change your settings, they still will get to you) and the second thing is how they utilize that information to let advertisers target you based on interest, location, gender, age, civil status, your friends, what is in your photos, where your photos are taken, where you have been etc etc. An additional scary thing is that most have also given Facebook access to other personal data like browsing history etc, that is why you see travel ads on Facebook an hour after you search for your next vacation destination with Safari or Chrome, that info is added to your info used for targeting.
- News targeting. This is what most people do not think about. We hear about filter bubbles and most of us have realized that the news we get is in some way personalized to fit my interest and behavior. Facebook wants us to interact as much as possible with content on the platform, so they push news to our feed that they think we want instead of showing a constant feed of lunch-pictures, which we do not interact with as much as we do with news-posts. That is why you see news articles more often even though just one friend has liked that post and 10 of your friends have more recently posted a picture of their newly ingested lunch.
- Conversion. The conversion rate that Facebook provide in most of their metrics is actually astonishing and the reason for that is naturally no 2 above, but to further increase this conversion they are mixing no 2 and no 3 to elevate their revenue.
Since advertiser can impact what information that is put in front of the users, a bad spiral has been created (and that is why Mark Zuckerberg constantly denies that Facebook had any impact on the US election).
The scary part – Conversion
When it gets really scary is when this data is used to profile us and put information in front of us that we actually do not agree with, but when in the way it is presented we lean towards agreeing and by this changing our mindset. This can happen since behavioural analysis is done on us and information is then presented in a way to shift our mindset. This method is perfected and originally from Cambridge University (no affiliation to Cambridge Analytica though).
It is today easy to plant disinformation, propaganda or simply false news. This also creates nationalism and authoritarianism.
This is the system that Cambridge Analytica has been utilizing when they helped Trump get elected. They did social profiling on almost every US citizen that can vote and personalized their feed to shift their beliefs (and if it did not work re-iterated until it did, on individual basis) in favor of Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica is a company rarely seen in public, but a brief background is that it is funded by billionaire Robert Mercer from one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, Renaissance Technologies (before becoming co-CEO of this hedge fund he worked at IBM Research on computational linguistics). Cambridge Analytica also has senior Trump advisor Stephen Bannon on the Board of Directors. The CEO is Alexander Nix and it has a UK version of it as well with the name of SCL Group. SCL Group did the same thing for Brexit. Below is a video of Alexander Nix presenting what they did for Ted Cruz in the primaries, before they joined forces with Trump, it still describes what they do pretty well.
The evil ecosystem
This ecosystem is several parts that feed off each other.
- The Platforms (Facebook etc)
- The Impactors (I think I just made up that word). The ones that want to impact us
- The users, that would be you and I
The platforms want revenue, the impactors want to impact us, the users want news and relevant information.
As you see in the ecosystem section above the last part is flawed, since we are not getting information and news that is relevant, but information others (the impactors) want us to consume and be impacted from. This is a major flaw on the internet today. It impact us all in a very very bad way.
As most things in business, Facebook (again, they are just the easy to use example here) is revenue driven and they want us to see and potentially interact with as many ads as possible and that makes us vulnerable for misleading information that creates a world made of powerful people where we, the internet users are the enabler for this happening, this without our own intent and knowing.
We need to stop misleading information and take control over our personal data.
Why this rambling? I have for some time tried to get my mind around this and since I have been quite heavily into cognitive computing and AI the last years a lot of thoughts have crossed my mind. With my background it might have been logic to work more intensively with large corporations on how to target their audience in a better way with behavioral targeting (using cognitive solutions), but my conclusion is that it is not ethical to use social, behavioral profiling and cognitive computing to do this.
I have at least 10 posts on this topic in draft mode, but have not published since it only paints a negative picture of the current world and some are almost doomsday prophecies. Just imagine the post I have on “Cognitive Warfare”, interesting, but also a bit scary, will keep it in draft for a while longer.
We need to tackle the problem with personal data and misleading information first.
When the users are safe and the information is not misleading and transparent, first after that we can use cognitive to interact with users the right way as a business.