The F… News business
Cambridge Analytica episode only confirms that, deep down, you have never really known what that F stands for
Picture this as the “A, B, C, Daniel” story — where A and B are executives from the firm where you’ve been working for years, C is you, and Daniel… well, Daniel is Daniel.
Separately, A and B approach you to ask about Daniel. A goes first: “What do you think of Daniel?”. Later, B does the same, but adds a piece of information: “What do you think about Daniel? We’re considering him as your new manager”. As simplistic as it may sound, this is Fake News 101.
From opinions and assumptions to the pure statement of facts, every message you send or receive from society — whether it’s your mom, your government or your news source (especially if it’s from your mom, your government or your news source) — is biased based on your (or their) interests.
This “A, B, C, Daniel” tale is just the most basic premise of a web of elements. From there, the mosaic only gets more intriguing. How much do you like, hate, need, despise Daniel? How important is your job at this moment in your life? How often do A and B actually listen to what you have to say? Have you also applied for the same position? These (and 1,000 other variables) will determine the difference between answers A and B, which “facts” about Daniel you will choose to highlight, which ones you will curtail, and how “fake” the second answer must be to do the trick — whatever your intentions are.
For the last couple of years, we have all been hailing the new F… word in town. The term “fake news” has been indolently used to explain Trump, Brexit, Russian spies, Facebook satanism and countless curses of modern society. As with other cases of social plagues — collapsed healthcare systems, child neglect, homelessness etc. — , the phony effort to combat the problem may result in an industry that has zero interest in solutions, because they profit from it. Yet we couldn’t care less.
Poverty-wise, professor Daniel L. Hatcher, from the University of Baltimore, has been sharing a few interesting perspectives for some time. Media-wise, we may not be there yet, but the emotional blackmail so far looks promising.
A couple of years ago, Pew Research Center conducted a two-part survey among 4,654 American adults ages 18 and older. Only 12% of young adults (18–29 years old) and 17% of those between 30 and 49 said “national media do a very good job keeping them informed”. And it gets sadder: only 10% of 18–29 year olds and 16% of 30–49 year olds declared that they trust the information from the national media “a lot”. I’ll repeat that again so you can comprehend the disaster: if you gather everybody under 50 and milk how much they trust the media, all you’ll get is 10% to 16% of believers.
Make no mistake: every time news media companies try to sell themselves as the cure for fake news, they secretly know this is a two-way street to say the least.
The recent Cambridge Analytica episode only confirms that this media strategy — that essentially consists in selling cough medicine to treat emphysema — may not stand for that much longer. A couple of weeks ago, whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former employee from Cambridge Analytica, revealed that the company harvested data from 50 million Facebook users, benefiting from a third-party app. “We ran that data through algorithms that could profile their personality trades and other psychological attributes so we would know exactly what kind of information we will need to seed into online platforms to exploit mental vulnerability”, Wylie detailed in two different interviews.
Most people didn’t fully understood the issue right away. Some still don’t. In part because it concerns words like “data” and “algorithm”, but also because instead of decoding what really happened, the only thing the press did — not all, but most — was enter into I-told-you-so mode.
Since media companies decided to highlight only part of the process — the one that has been fitting their narrative for some time (data breach+Russian interference=fake news) — , Facebook made its move. It summoned Mark Zuckerberg (CEO) and Sheryl Sandberg (COO) to put out the (fake) fire by playing along with this plot and drawing attention away from the actual controversy: what led Cambridge Analytica to spend $1 million in harvesting data and building an algorithm to “exploit mental vulnerability” only exists due to Facebook’s business model in the first place.
“What we see are a lot of folks trying to sell division. That was a major tactic that we saw Russia trying to use in the 2016 election. Most of what they did wasn’t directly about the election, but it was more about dividing people”, Zuckerberg argued in a CNN interview. Less than 48 hours later, Sheryl Sandberg told CNBC that “there will always be bad actors who have tried and will try to use the platform”, which is hogwash, I know, but most importantly, it is conveniently different from what she has said last year. Play it again, Sheryl: if the Russian-linked ads hadn’t been bought by fraudulent accounts, “most of them would be allowed to run” anyway because “the thing about free expression is when you allow free expression you allow free expression”.
Neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg brought up this classic motto again because that’s the whole point of Facebook’s ecosystem: whether you’re Russian, American or from wherever, when you buy a Facebook ad, you can accurately micro target your audience at spectacular levels to promote almost anything you want.
Cambridge Analytica wasn’t sending hardcore viruses, Soviet nanobots or brain waves to each one of the 50 million Facebook users they collected the data from. Instead, it was posting ads on social platforms using the same ad tools that you, me, Russian spies and The New York Times are allowed to use. Better yet, are encouraged to use. The difference was, since Cambridge Analytica had an incredible amount of data from an incredible amount of people, their content could be much more efficient and each target could be shaped with an unprecedented precision.
This is not deduction, it is exactly what Chris Wiley told The Guardian: “We are going to combine micro targeting, which had existed in politics (…) but bring on board a new construct from psychology, so that we wouldn’t just be targeting you as a voter, we will be targeting you as a personality. And, in order to scale that, we would then be collecting a lot of data on people”.
Since journalists were more obsessed with Zuckerberg testifying or not, Facebook appreciated the help and stuck to the plan. Last week, the company did exactly what media was expecting it to do: it announced strategies to counter election meddling. Guy Rosen, VP of Product Management, opened the show with everybody’s favorite keywords: “During the 2016 US election, foreign actors tried to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Here are four main election security areas that we are working on: combating foreign interference, removing fake accounts, increasing ads transparency and reducing the spread of false news”.
Most of traditional media, obviously, took the opportunity to keep advertising their cough syrup while only a few stressed that there’s virtually no practicality in these “new” measures. Not only hardcore players, such as Daily Wire and Newsmax, but also milder peers, like The HuffPost and BuzzFeed, and especially consulting firms — such as Cambridge Analytica itself — will always push stories and theories through social platforms according to their “impressions”.
Which leads us to another topic that “real” media oddly has chosen to ignore: Cambridge Analytica’s “legacy” won’t go anywhere, even if the company dissolves. What they already built is more than enough to perform any advertising witchcraft money can buy. By the way, this is the same money that helped Facebook’s ad revenue grow from $17 billion in 2015 to $40 billion in 2017.
In the long run, media companies could never save our friend Daniel — that one from the first paragraph. After all, weaponizing information to fan the flames of sensitive issues relates to fake news the same way it does to the other f… news business. The variable is, with today’s advertising model, instead of talking about Daniel to A and B, you can spread your version of him to the whole alphabet. And for those who bought the Cambridge Analytica package — because you’re silly if you believe that we’re dealing with a one-time event — , it is even possible to use 26 different tailor-made approaches.
In 2015, Russia triggered its arsenal of trolls and false information against Finland — because, yeah, Russian interference is a real thing — and the Finnish government decided to seriously combat fake news by educating politicians and the general public. But, most importantly, the long-term strategy to deflect disinformation is aimed at the educational system: since 2016, Finnish students are encouraged to be skeptical of all online content. They’re taught how to read the news critically, not only the “fake” stories, but all types of news. Since traditional media is madly in love with this Russian interference+fake news equation, this could be a good place to start.