I’ve written many times that consumers have been hacked. Corporations with billion-dollar research budgets have poked and prodded us for decades, exposing every weakness, turning your human nature against you and exploiting that systematically. After reading this excellent Washington Post story about the spread of conspiracy theories online, I worry that this hacking process is almost complete.
The story does a masterful job of matching up a man who makes $15,000 a month spreading crazy, sexy lies online — “CALIFORNIA INSTITUTES SHARIA LAW!” — with a lonely 76-year-old woman who believes and shares those lies.
As CNN’s Brian Stelter points out, the story is really about addiction.
Take a vulnerable population and give them a hit of excitement at just the right moment, and you’ve got ’em hooked. Then, you just need to keep ratcheting up the dosage. Fake news has become Amerca’s new drug of choice. We don’t really need Russians to spread fake news, though they certainly helped at the beginning. We’re doing a fine job of “amusing ourselves to death.”
Sure, the obvious villain in this story is Christopher Blair, purveyor of “America’s Last Line of Defense” and its crazy headlines. He’s the street drug dealer here. He’s dripping with spite for the junkies who buy his crap — “How could any thinking person believe this nonsense?” — but he’s making good money off the “Idiocracy.”
It’s also easy to blame the 76-year-old woman who falls for it, mixing her own confirmation bias failings with exaggerations she somehow wants to be true.
As always, I want people to think bigger. After all, Blair was deep in credit card debt when he found drug dealing as an occupation, and he still lives in a trailer park. The elderly woman is painfully lonely. If you want to pin blame for this disaster, and look for hope fixing it, don’t look down on them — look up. Look at the people with the million-dollar homes and billion-dollar revenue streams.
Targeted advertising hasn’t merely assaulted our personal privacy. It has attacked our brains, creating a drug so powerful that, so far, humanity seems helpless to fight it. Google didn’t invent surveillance marketing, but the tech giant just about perfected it. “You looked at this? Now look at that!” advertising didn’t invent conspiracies, but it has turned them into the worldwide addiction.
I know this sounds like hyperbole. But I dare anyone to read this great story by Kelly Weill at The Daily Beast about a convention of Flat Earthers and deny that we are facing a dark crisis.
My friends know I play a dark parlor game frequently now: I ask simply, “Is the Internet good or bad? For knowledge?” Before anyone jumps in to talk about the amazing advances made because a billion people can communicate instantly, I ask a second question: “Do more or fewer people think the Earth is flat than 10 years ago?” I then share evidence that the answer might be “more.” (With a few caveats.)
Sure, a bunch of crackpots gathering in Colorado talking nonsense might be insignificant. Read between the lines and you’ll quickly grasp the real truth of the matter. Tools like YouTube are engineered to find precisely those people most vulnerable to brain poison like Flat Earth videos and hook them at precisely the right time. Watch a few 9-11 Truther shows, then maybe some Obama-is-a-Muslim videos, and you are bound to be served some grade-A Flat Earth conspiracies, Weill points out. One victim in the story (I will take to calling these people victims now; addiction is a sickness) talks about a Flat Earth video popping up, then suddenly, she spent three days bingeing on them. Many of this victims would never have considered the Earth might be flat until YouTube found them and gave them that first free sample.
Imagine for just one hideous moment that neighborhood drug dealers had an app which texts them at the precise moment that an addict in rehab was shivering, cold and alone, on their bathroom floor at 3 a.m. And that app could instantly transport the dealer to the bathroom. “Click here; you’ll feel better right away,” the dealer whispers.
That’s the Internet. Now.
I don’t know if Google or Facebook should have seen this coming. I didn’t, and I was a small part of this. In 1995 I went to work at Microsoft and MSN as a wide-eyed intern thinking we were inventing a new, liberating, beautiful and free form of news that had the potential to transform the planet. It did; but what a wrong turn we have taken.
Information wants to be free, we all thought as we built what eventually became MSNBC.com. That’s true. What we didn’t see: The Internet is better at spreading lies than spreading the truth. For a while, we marveled that fact-checkers would come running out to correct misinformation spread by the news media, or world leaders, and that was exciting. It didn’t last, however. Because nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost. The cost of “free” information is that someone gets to decide which information is “more equal.” The Web, and Facebook, are ultimately very narrow portals through which we see the world. And that doorway is tightly controlled by just a few people printing money at rate never before seen in the Western world.
Sadly, lies print more money for them than the truth. There are more Flat Earthers in the world today because YouTube makes money off them. Sure, video creators make some too; but the real money is never in the street pushers, it’s always in the drug lords. And the manufacturers. Tech companies have invented digital crack cocaine, and they are hooked on the sales.
So what now?
America’s addiction to fake news is a national health crisis and a crisis for democracies around the world. A few press releases and repeated mea culpas from Mark Zuckerberg aren’t going to help. Tech companies need to stop hacking consumers, period. They need to respect privacy, now. They need to end surveillance marketing.
Companies like Google and Facebook need to do some real soul-searching and come up with a new business model. Fake-news-pushing algorithms are immoral and destructive, but they are an inevitable by-product of surveillance marketing. If we’re going to know when you are lonely so we can push you at online dating sites, we’re going to know when we can push you at videos about sharia law in U.S. schools, too. I don’t see how these things can be separated. Perhaps giving up this lucrative revenue stream would be a fatal blow to their businesses. So be it. One tenet of Gotcha Capitalism, the scourge of free markets everywhere, is that it favors companies that cheat over legitimate enterprises. Tech giants, if your firms can’t make money without creating addicts, without killing knowledge and wrecking democracy, then dry up and blow away. Find a legitimate way to make money. Before it’s too late.