Is big business hacking people’s minds?
Ever since Trump was elected, I’ve been struggling to figure out what happened to the collective American brain. Sure, I have seen lots of conspiracy theories. From whitelash, to the anti-Hillary effect, the Russians, and even a diabolical tool that extracts data from social apps to subvert the election results by a shady organisation in London, and many more theories.
Maybe there’s an element of truth in all of them. But what if there’s another hidden factor that was the real contributor to Trump’s success?
That thought has been at the back of my mind, while I read the news or watch TV or discuss things, much like the proverbial dog gnawing at its bone. Is there a missing link I’m not just seeing? Or is it a figment of my imagination?
Then I read about Ajit Pai trying to break net neutrality in US, and laughed to myself, “That’s not going to happen, not in the land of the free.” Suddenly it struck me that this was exactly what I felt when I first heard Trump was planning to run for President. Was history about to repeat itself?
My curiosity was aroused and I began to follow the net neutrality issue closely, watching how it evolved. There seemed to be a lot of debate on it, like this post on Medium titled, ‘Net Neutrality is not a good thing. It’s not an evil thing, either.’ That puzzled me. Debating about net neutrality seemed a bit to me like debating if the US government should tax its citizens for sunshine.
That’s when it finally clicked. Let me see if I can make sense of what I think is happening.
In the ‘Land of the Free,’ people like to debate every possible side of an issue before making a decision. It’s irrelevant whether it’s debatable or not, as the US is a country where people take pride in the integrity of their decisions based on logical reasoning.
This would be fine under normal circumstances. But ‘normal’ disappeared under a humungous cloud of data a few years ago. You can only debate if you have the facts. But finding facts in today’s mountain of data is harder than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
This sudden disappearance of facts seems to be causing a fundamental change in human behaviour. People are postponing decisions till they find facts and this eventually leads to a state of paralysis as far as decision-making goes.
Now here’s the big ‘what if.’
What if big business is creating info overloads on matters of public debate? What if it’s doing this deliberately, sort of hacking the human mind so as to incapacitate its ability to make rational decisions? If this is true, then big business is slowly evolving into the 21st century version of George Orwell’s big brother.
Take the current net neutrality debate. Big business stands to benefit if net neutrality ends. So what do they do?
Simple. Throw in more data to further muddy up the waters. The fake comments on the FCC site are a good example. It’s a data overload designed to confuse people and stop them from taking a stand.
Think about it. Who’s got the motivation and the big pockets to fund the tons of fake news in the market?
A software engineer found that “…less than 800,000 of the 22-million comments submitted to the FCC could be considered truly unique.”
This is a double-pronged attack. The first level makes the FCC say 90% of comments show they are against net neutrality, and the government should listen to them. The second aspect is even more dangerous. All those people who are unable to decide because of the data overload, see FCC’s comment that millions are against net neutrality. There’s a good possibility they will heave a sigh of relief, stop analysing, and blindly decide to join the ‘majority.’ And that would have been the end of net neutrality.
Fortunately, the FCC fraudulent comments were exposed before it caused much damage. The battle is still on.
But is there any way to stop this deliberate sabotage of facts and the ensuing downward spiral of decision-making?
I don’t have the answers.
What I do know was that India faced a similar battle on net neutrality a while ago. It was an inspirational clash between people power and big business, a veritable David versus Goliath confrontation. The difference was that unlike in the US, net neutrality was not an abstract concept for Indians. They had experienced what happened when net neutrality is removed, and knew it hit them where it hurts — in their pockets. This story in the Guardian (that ran in May 2015) gives a detailed look at what happened in India.
Here’s a shorter version, ok, maybe just a wee bit shorter.
Airtel, India’s largest mobile network, began blocking VOIP calls (like Skype and WhatsApp), and instead offered it for a fee. Indian netizens who are very conscious about every rupee (two cents), protested vociferously. As far as they were concerned, they had paid for their data plan, and Airtel had no right to restrict how they used that data, let alone demand an extra payment for using their own data to make a WhatsApp call.
And so the battle lines were drawn. On one side were the corporate heavies including Facebook and Airtel who came loaded with pots of money. On the other side was a rag tag band of internet idealists from all over India with absolutely no financial backing. This disparate group cobbled together an inspiring campaign that used a potent mix of online petitions, political lobbying and hilarious YouTube videos to engage the public, make them aware what was going on, and get them to raise their voice in one resounding ‘YES’ for net neutrality.
What I loved about the whole affair was how the crafty plans of Big Business blew up in their faces. Facebook believed the internet users of India were not particularly savvy, and could be easily fooled. They came up with a devious plan to get their huge base of Indian Facebook users to sign a petition that purported to support net neutrality. In reality, it was doing the reverse. But they misjudged the street smarts of India’s common man. The campaign failed spectacularly and the Indian Government banned Facebook’s so-called ‘free’ internet. The financial loss in promoting their ‘free’ internet would not have mattered to Facebook. But the public humiliation at being exposed for the fraud it was, would have hurt. In fact, I was so thrilled that I gushed out a whole post about it at the time.
India’s net neutrality battle ended when the chief of TRAI (India’s Telecom Authority) ruled in its favour, stating, “It may not be an exact analogy but let me try to explain. If you are going on an expressway, the toll service provider should be only concerned about toll, and not ask where I am going. These are the principles based on which we are saying an operator cannot charge differently based on content.”
By an odd coincidence, this was confirmed a few days ago (November 28, 2017) when TRAI, reiterated its earlier decision by unequivocally stating, “…operators must be barred from blocking, degrading or slowing internet traffic selectively.”
I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about how the small guys took on the big corporate bullies, and beat them soundly.
If there’s anything to be learnt from India’s battle, the way to beat a ‘confuse and divide’ strategy is to use the ‘clarify and unite’ counter.
- Big Business came out with misleading campaign on several fronts in its attempts to confuse the issue. The small guys came up with one single battlecry called #savetheinternet that began trending. The website savetheinternet.in explained all aspects of the issue in simple language, clearly stated the reasons for the website, who was behind the website, and the fact that they weren’t in it for money. The site is no longer up, but you can see a cached version of it here. This single source worked like a snopes.com but designed specifically to dismiss Big Business’s attempts to confuse the net neutrality issue. Absolutely brilliant!
- Big Business claimed removing net neutrality was good for India. The small guys came out with hilarious videos that showed the truth in simple language, and lampooned Big Business at the same time. The small guys came out as likable heroes and united the opposition against Big Business.
- Big Business persuaded TRAI to invite public comment on the issue via a 110 page document filled with jargon, and a set of complicated queries. The small guys simplified this by creating a form with all queries answered (with the aid of a lawyer). All a supporter had to do was add his personal details and click ‘send’. Millions of emails were sent to TRAI. The results speak for themselves!
- Big Business (Airtel) claimed they were suffering huge losses because they were losing income from voice calls. The small guys published a statistic that showed Airtel’s average revenue per user (ARPU) from data services had increased by a record 13.3% in that quarter. This was because new customers came online in record numbers attracted by cheap VOIP calls. Big Business came across as greedy, as well as untrustworthy.
- Facebook presented TRAI with a campaign signed by thousands of its users saying they supported Free Basics, Facebook’s free internet product. The small guys objected saying Facebook misled its users into thinking they were supporting net neutrality. TRAI agreed, and banned Free Basics. Facebook literally lost face!
- Big Business lured many Indian companies to join their bandwagon with a bait of a captive audience. But faced with bad publicity and a potential boycott by the small guys, companies like Flipkart, NDTV, Times Internet, and Cleartrip, hastily withdrew their support.
What’s happening in the US is the next phase of the same battle.
Big Business is back with a new ‘data overload’ strategy. This is a dangerous development as it hard to prove that they are behind it, and worse, it’s been very effective. One small example can be seen in how Hillary’s use of a private email server turned from an insignificant issue into an insurmountable one. The constant replay of the issue in the news magnified it far beyond its actual importance. And it definitely played a role in Trump coming to power.
At the moment, Big Business seems to be heading for a blowout victory by confusing any issue that requires public debate. But if the ordinary citizens of US united, and replicate the strategy of India as outlined above, I don’t see why they can’t pull the carpet out from under Big Business’ feet.
After all, who were the people behind India’s battle for net neutrality? A few students, a bunch of normal people working at regular jobs, owners of startups, a few journalists, some lawyers, a group of comedians… their united strength created the David who knocked down Goliath.
So where are the Davids of the US?
To rehash the famous quote, you have nothing to lose but your Trumps.