We have recently learned that Cambridge Analytica, and probably many other companies, were data mining Facebook users’ personal information. It was revealed that certain apps were downloaded by users, and friends of those users would have relevant data extracted from them as well. Cambridge Analytica designed an algorithm to not only extract this information, but to apparently parse this information into manageable information that could be then be used to target users via ads and emails. Users would then be led down a carefully constructed maze of fake news, disinformation sites, sites reinforcing their beliefs, sites which create new beliefs in their victims, and sites that attempt to change the minds of fence-sitters.
This technique is not new. Anyone paying attention would have seen similar such attempts by advertisers. I myself created a network of sites 15 years ago in which every link led to another one of my websites and pages. In my site stats, I could see users leaving one site and going to one of my other sites in my network. It’s fairly easy to set up. My goal at the time however was to increase ad revenue, not trick minds with fake news stories.
Christopher Wylie, formerly of Cambridge Analytica, blew the whistle and reported that over 50 million FB users had their information taken with the express goal to lead them down a number of notorious rabbit holes of propaganda and lies. Wylie mentioned on his media tour that Cambridge field tested this, and it worked! The success of the data they compiled and the algorithm used to influence users (their product) is believed to have been later sold through Cambridge Analytica to various external parties. CA apparently helped out Ted Cruz during his campaign but when it was apparent that he was going to lose, CA began working on other data gathering projects for the Trump Campaign.
A Russian Connection?
One individual involved in the creation of the notorious app which pulled user data was a Russian-born professor, Aleksandr Kogan, who was working on projects dealing with how to psychologically profile net users, allegedly funded by Russia. He has been asked to speak to congress about his role. He denies any wrongdoing.
Sometime in March, 2018, the CEO of CA, Alex Nix, was caught on hidden camera boasting about the effectiveness of his operations, in particular, that he helped get Donald Trump elected. Worse, that he essentially entraps certain politicians by showering them with women so that his clients, and possibly CA itself, can have something on them at a later date.
Since this has come up, Trump supporters, thanks to conservative news media outlets, are convinced that this is all a liberal lie and simply another “deep-state” diversion tactic. Sadly, many of these Trump supporters are victims of CA’s efforts! Many of their beliefs about the “deep state”, crooked Hillary, and even President Obama’s birth certificate have come out of these efforts to influence gullible minds.
How Can We Fix This Invasion of Lies and Disinformation?
What is the solution? Well, Facebook has recently banned CA, which is great! But what could have inoculated the public against such obvious fake news and emotional pandering? I argue, Critical Thinking.
Our society is crumbling in its ability to decipher reality. To repair the damage, we must teach our children the ability to question not only everything external to them, but to question themselves as well. It begins with all of us as citizens, educators, and parents. We must allow our children the flexibility to question dogma, while simultaneously giving them tools to discern fact from fiction. As an educator, I see the value daily of having my students question everything, even me. My classroom is one of the rare institutional learning spaces that openly allows the students to question my lessons, statements, and claims. I believe this helps them grow to be more intelligent, critical thinkers. Developing the mindset and courage to question freely helps us all grow; as such, society will eventually evolve into one that is full of citizens with the ability to think and probe more deeply.
Parents: What can you do?
Allow your children to question what you have asked of them or claims that you have made. Teach yourself how to respond adequately. I recommend encouraging and celebrating their out-of-the-box thinking. Sadly, many of us have grown up in authoritarian homes in which being inquisitive was considered, “talking back” and punishable by physical pain. Teach them that there are ways to converse without violence. Teach them that it’s okay to be wrong. Lead by example. Check your own biases. Be honest when you are wrong. And please, please, stop sharing information that you yourself haven’t properly vetted. It is with these actions today that we can begin to see a brighter day tomorrow.
Recommend Resource: Snopes.com (Fact Checking Website Specializing in Debunking Urban Legends and Internet Memes)