By Wil Forbis
A few weeks ago, I was poking around reddit.com and came across an interesting post. It was a query from a Venezuelan twentysomething asking about getting work in Spain. He was planning to move to the European country because the situation in Venezuela was getting dangerous and he felt his life could be in danger. (If you haven’t heard, Venezuela has been racked with violent protests.) The young man was looking for advice on how to use his meager savings to build a new life in new country.
I read through the sympathetic responses to his questions with some interest. Then something struck me: what if this post wasn’t real? What if there was no beleaguered Venezuelan, but rather this was a kind of psyops operation orchestrated by some political agency, perhaps an anti-government group in Venezuela or the CIA?
Now, do I really think the post is a fake? No, I’d say there’s a very high probability that it’s real. The crux of my thought was more that I had no way of knowing whether it was real. And that’s because it’s very hard to know what is real or fake on the Internet.
Let’s explore the possibility that this post was a fraud perpetrated by the U.S. government. What would be the point of such an activity? To, in a very small way, help destabilize the Venezuelan government. Could such an action really have any effect? On its own, of course not. But as part of a campaign of fake posts/blogs/web site articles it just might. Psyops is essentially a battle for hearts and minds. Some guy reads a blog about Venezuelans struggling against their government. He goes to work and his left leaning cubical mate makes some comments about the appeal of communism as practiced by countries like Cuba and Venezuela. This guy volleys back and uses the information he just read as ammunition. (Perhaps he even brings up the post.) Maybe he evens wins the argument, or at least gets his coworker to concede that not everything is fine and dandy in commie-land. Repeat that process, that conversation, a half million times. Suddenly opinions are shifting all over the world.
I used to roll my eyes a bit when people would theorize about these kinds of psyop practices. It just sounded so ineffective---the idea of some CIA spook sitting behind a computer typing blog posts and creating fake facebook accounts. But now… not so much. These operations could be effective and bloodless ways of effecting national or foreign policies. (This article points to the U.S. military performing exactly such operations, though purportedly aimed only at non-U.S. citizens.)
It doesn’t have to be governments doing this. Let’s say someone goes to a health message board on the web and asks how to gets rid of their acne. Several people respond, but one poster in particular, perhaps a frequent commenter on the site, says, “I totally cured my acne with Brand X.” How do we really know this person isn’t an employee of Brand X? (You may be familiar with the term sock puppet which is a person pretending to be someone else on the Internet to advance their own interests. In the world of fiction writing, several authors have been caught using sock puppets to inform the world of their genius while damning competitors.)
I’ll raise an obvious question. With the rise of chatbots and A.I. programs, how long until computer programs themselves will be the fakers? A program could be developed that creates a profile across various web sites and social media and then drops the appropriate opinions into conversations in a seemingly natural way? (“Funny you mention prune juice, Bob. I’m convinced it was prune juice combined with my Brand X skin cream that cured my psoriasis.”)
So far, I’m talking about a danger poised by fake personas online. But what about the web environment and the way search results and interesting stories fall into our lap? Is that deceitful?
Much has already been made of the fact that Google search results are tailored to your past behavior. If you tend to click on web sites with the a certain ideological viewpoint then Google will increase the prevalence of those web sites in your search results. Many people fear this reinforces a filter bubble in which people are only exposed to views they already hold. As a result, internet users get a skewed view of the opinions of their fellow citizens.
One could argue the filter bubble helped push Donald Trump to victory. Passive liberals, emboldened by eight years of Obama, turned to Google and Facebook and saw only people who shared their opinions and none of the simmering rage of the flyover states. ( This article argues that journalists missed the coming Trump victory because they spent much of their time in the ideologically stratified environment of Twitter.)
With filter bubbles there’s no real malevolent intent. Google, Facebook and other searchable sites enact filter bubbles to increase the “stickiness” of their sites, not to dupe people. But can the web environment actually be manipulated to place specific emotions and ideas into people’s heads?
British journalist Carole Cadwalladr has been doing an interesting series of articles at the Guardian web site that point to just that possibilty. She’s been reporting on a communications firm, Cambridge Analytica, that can track people’s web activities and then target them with specific advertisements.
Think about what a person’s web activities and Facebook likes exposes about them. Look at that guy over there who frequents the Huffington Post and likes the Black Lives Matter page. A bleeding heart liberal no doubt. How about the gal who hovers over the NRA blog and likes Sean Hannity’s page? You get the picture.
…Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who had mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites “strangling” the mainstream media, told me that trackers from sites like Breitbart could also be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads.
On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.
Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”
What can a political campaign do with this knowledge? Let’s say you’re running for President. Your strategists inform you that you’ve got to win in several small counties in Ohio to take the state’s electoral votes. Cambridge Analytica hands you data that lets you target specific members of these communities. You can identify voters sympathetic to you and place ads in from of them that will enrage them about the nefariousness of your opponent, thereby firing them up to vote. You can also find voters who support your opponent and target them with ads that will fill them with malaise at the thought of their party’s standard-bearer, thus suppressing their urge to vote for anyone.
We tend to think of the web as a kind of natural environment, controlled by no conscious manipulators. We feel that we “surf” from one web site to another with no one guiding our hand. But, if fact, we may be seeing exactly what someone, somewhere wants us to see.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.