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We are under attack

Posted: Kathleen Maher 10.06.17

In every cocktail party, every dinner, chance meetings with friends, casual encounters at the gym, the question of politics will come up, no matter how hard we all try to avoid it. No matter how cautious we used to be about testing the waters before opening our big mouths and sounding off. It’s becoming a national compulsion.

I know we don’t all agree, so for God’s sake don’t worry I’m not going to get all political in this little safe space of ours. But, I was just fascinated this article entitled, “The German Far Right Finds Friends Through Facebook.” Please read it, because it adds an important new dimension to the debate we’re having over social media, journalism, and accountability. In short, the article talks about how an Austin-based company, Harris Media, was hired by the anti-immigrant German right wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to help boost its political campaign. They used social media, Facebook as a matter of fact, to develop a list of potential swing voters and then they crafted ads for these groups of people. They used Google search as well.

Bloomberg News points out that the campaign was not illegal, Harris had been hired by a political party, and they didn’t use fake accounts and bots, they just bought ads. But, Facebook analysts were hired by Harris to come in and help the team identify groups of target voters.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is getting a slow roasted by Congress for his inability or unwillingness to recognize and halt the fraudulent Russian campaign. 

This story brought up several things for me. One, that the flow of information, misinformation, and disinformation travels freely through the ether. (We're outraged that Russia is sending us fake news and meanwhile an American company is happily sending trash to German voters.) Two, the challenge isn’t really politics, it’s money. And three, what the hell are we going to do about social media?

As I said, it’s a bit of a false comparison to say that Harris’ antics in Germany are equivalent to Russia’s dis-information campaign during the U.S. elections. Most obviously, Harris is not hiding, and in fact, they’re celebrating their work and soliciting new work in Europe. But, there is still the same cynical manipulation of facts and non-facts to influence voters most of whom are too preoccupied with their lives to think twice about the information that flashes in front of them and look for context. Right now is as good a time as any to think about the power of the Internet. It’s not a medium that fosters reflection, but rather snap judgments, impulse buying (lord, yes), and superficial social interaction. There isn’t much to be done about it except perhaps to try and foster other modes of deeper discourse. Oh, like a telephone call, but also long-form journalism, movies, better education that may counter our growing appetite for fast facts with a love of deeper study.

To worry about the power of money seems even more quixotic. Of course money is powerful, money is power. It would be nice to at least know where the money comes from. The Russian campaign was funded by dark money funneled through false accounts because a political ad with the disclaimer, “this ad was paid for by the government of Russia, PS we will bury you” would have a quite different effect. It’s ludicrous to think US politicians have any real interest in fighting the power of money in politics. Now, think about what can happen when wealth flows anonymously through blockchain currencies—at that point anything and anyone can be bought and sold and no one will have the power to uncover the details of the transaction.

Social media is just as much a force for good as it is a force for evil—kind of like people. We are coming to realize there is a real need for transparency. And, that evil rests in the corners of anonymity not to mention adolescence. That is to say, some of the mischief happening today probably wouldn’t happen if people’s mothers knew what’s going on. But the other side, the premeditated, unkind, or dishonest exchange of information would also be hampered by more daylight into the source of information. Perhaps we will mature to the point that we’re better able to read nonsense for what it is. There is a limit to what we’d even want technology to do. Do we want machine learning to determine what’s fit to read? Maybe. But, we are also blessed by the wealth of information flowing around us and we need it. We’re getting smarter, even if it’s killing us.

The point of this swear-to-god-non-political rant is that technology isn’t good or evil but good people have to figure out how to make it work the right way. What’s so hard about that?

By the way, I loved these two movies about the tricky moral questions illuminated by money and politics: Miss Sloane and Our Brand is Crisis. Both movies are about talented political operatives who find their moral limits. As I said, watching movies is a healthy alternative to reading the news. Also, as a follow up, after I wrote this I saw a 60 Minutes episode in which Trump's web wizard Brad Parscale described his work on the campaign that also took advantage of Facebook's consulting services for targeting groups of people. He was incredulous that the other campaigns didn't do a better job of mining the same resources he did. It's a very fair point. We just need to know who is doing the mining.