Weapons of Mass Communication: Big Data
WMCs: Digital or computer-mediated weapons capable of a high order of misinformation or causing mass chaos.
It’s 2018 and the idle chit chat I encounter during my non-work daily routine has shifted. When the topic turns to work, as it typically tends to, I’ve found myself doing less explaining and more justifying. It’s less talk about the ins and outs of managing social media at a university and more discussion about data privacy. Just the other day, an older gentleman at my health club wondered if I could explain to him what was going on with Mark Zuckerberg and the #DeleteFacebook movement so that he knew whether or not to keep his profile.
These are the circumstances when your job is, quite literally, to operate weapons of mass communication.
The thing with WMCs, though, is that the widespread effect can also be massively good. And so I’ve found myself in an uncertain position — torn between what is right, what is wrong, and what my role is in the larger scope of things. As a user, I value privacy. As a content creator, I value the ability to communicate with the appropriate audience through micro targeting. As a social media manager, I feel a responsibility to help synthesize a better understanding of the movement behind #DeleteFacebook. With any weapon comes a responsibility to fully understand how it operates and the damage it can inflict.
We’ve Been Wrong About Facebook All Along
And we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves. We thought we were using Facebook as a product for connecting and building communities. In reality, the product has always been us.
“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.” — via ‘You Are The Product’ by John Lanchester
Each and every one of us is willingly serving up our data as ammunition for the communication warfare taking place.
Suddenly we — the public — are acting as if Facebook ought to operate on our terms when we agreed to theirs the moment we signed up.
Can you think of a time when you noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of you and were able to make an assumption about that person’s political affiliation or even their gender? “Liking” a Page on Facebook is the social media equivalent.
For example, a person on my friends list has “liked” the following Pages: Rocky Mountain Gun Owners; Defense of Freedom; Womenworking.com; Thoughtful Women; and AARP Arizona. From these five data points, a person could construct a theoretical profile of this user’s gender, political affiliation, and age bracket. In fact, a 2013 article discovered that private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. The range of highly sensitive personal attributes — based on a dataset of over 58,000 volunteers — include the following: ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, sexual orientation, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender (Kosinski, Stillwell, & Graepel, 2013).
“With just 10 likes, a computer model fundamentally knows you better than a colleague, according to additional research published by Kosinski in 2015. With 70 likes, it knows you better than a friend or roommate; with 150 likes, better than a family member. And with 300 likes, Big Data knows you better than your spouse.” — CNN
It’s easy to see how a user’s voting decision might be predicted (and consequently influenced) based on their online behavior.
Data Harvesting For Digital Marketing Is Not New
In 1990, J.M. Digman advanced a personality model including five major factors that are believed to represent the basic structure behind all personality traits (O’Connor, 2002). The Big Five personality traits, also known as the OCEAN model, are:
- Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easygoing/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
Another system for marketing (dating back to the 90s and still in use today) is the Claritas PRIZM model, a set of geo-demographic segments for the United States. The segments were developed based on U.S. census data and separate U.S. consumers into 14 distinct social groups, 11 distinct life-stage groups, and 66 demographically and behaviorally distinct segments to help marketers understand consumers’ likes, dislikes, lifestyles, and purchase behaviors.
For instance, the area where I grew up would likely fall into Segment 45, Blue Highways. According to the official website, this segment represents midscale residents who live in isolated towns and farmsteads, where Boomer men like to hunt and fish, and the women enjoy sewing and crafts. “Everyone looks forward to going out to a country music concert.” People in the Blue Highway segment are expected to order from drugstore.com, do crafting, read Bassmaster, watch Country Music TV, and drive a Chevrolet Silverado Diesel.
Enter Cambridge Analytica.
Several years ago, a personality quiz began circulating on Facebook, developed by a researcher working for the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The results of this quiz were used to indicate users’ attributes in relation to the OCEAN model. Then, these results were compared to what users had liked on Facebook, drawing correlations between personality traits and interests.
The creation of personality profiles based on data collected online is called “psychographic” profiling, and it’s how Cambridge Analytica earned the reputation as a shady data firm.
Christopher Wylie, a data scientist and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, has described the company’s influence in the 2016 presidential election as a grossly unethical experiment because they were “playing with the psychology of an entire nation in the context of the democratic process.” Cambridge Analytica, according to Wylie, is a full service propaganda machine.
“If you want to change politics, you first have to change culture, because politics flows from culture. If you want to change culture, you have to first understand what the units of culture are. The people are the units of culture. So if you want to change politics, you first have to change people to change the culture. … If you want to win a war, you need weapons for that.” — Wylie
Alexander Nix, the suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, demonstrated in 2016 how his company was targeting psychographically categorized voters with strategically created content. Nix provided an example in the context of the 2nd Amendment. A person found to be highly neurotic and conscientious is naturally more affected by “the threat of a burglary — and the insurance policy of a gun.” This user was targeted with an image showing a window being smashed by a hand. The audience found to be closed and agreeable — people who care about tradition and family — was shown an image of a man and a child, both holding guns gazing off into a field at sunset.
This is not shouting into a large crowd, hoping one person hears your message. This is whispering into the ear of the person you’ve meticulously picked from the crowd, with a message you already know will resonate.
If you’re using the Internet, you’re willfully curating your very own psychographic profile. And Facebook is only one of the major companies collecting your data, along with Amazon, Google, and many others. Before deleting Facebook, my first suggestion is to take steps toward learning what your data says about you. You can download your own Facebook data by logging in and going to Settings > General Account Settings > Download a copy of your Facebook data. From here, you can browse 70 categories of data, including “Ad Topics,” which gives you a list of topics that you may be targeted against based on your stated likes, interests and other data you put in your Timeline. Another option is to view your ad preferences, which shows what influences the ads you see and gives you the ability to take control over your ad experience. You can opt not to see ads based on the way you use websites and apps.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Our social media strategy is undoubtedly set to change, especially after discovering something unusual in my latest monthly analytics report. For the first time ever, our Instagram account is reaching more users per post than Facebook, and our reach through Facebook has been spiraling downward ever since the algorithm was overhauled to prioritize interactions between friends and family. With a movement urging people to #DeleteFacebook, we’ll need to be resilient and flexible in determining how to refocus our efforts. Even if our audience changes, our mission to share meaningful content never will.
Thanks for reading! If you notice any inaccuracies in my writing, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.