Over the weekend, I watched The Great Hack, a new Netflix documentary on the subject of professional influencing and the backstory of Cambridge Analytica. It’s the kind of documentary that makes you immediately want to delete all the apps from your phone and reach for the nearest tinfoil hat. Although I resisted the temptation to throw my phone in the river, I was astonished at the scale of metadata living freely on the Internet, and how easily it can be exploited to serve any number of unknown purposes.
In Cambridge Analytica’s own marketing material, the company claimed to own “5,000 data points on every American voter”. I’m not sure how exact this figure is, but if it’s anywhere remotely close to accurate, it’s beyond alarming.
The documentary made me question just how independently I form “my” opinions. Are they genuinely my own? Or, am I just another pawn in some big system?
Behavioral change and advertising is, of course, nothing new. Companies and politicians have been buying and crafting clever ads to influence people for centuries. So, what’s so different about it this time?
The unnerving component of new age behavioral influence to me, is the stealthiness of its effects. For example, when I see a 100 ft billboard by Nike, I know I’m looking at an ad. But when an unsuspecting citizen uses Facebook to keep in touch with friends, and is silently being nudged to like a particular political candidate, it just feels wrong.
The big point I’m trying to make in this blog post is that I’m now highly skeptical of the quantity of my own thinking that remains untouched by the paws of unwanted influencers. My guess is that absolutely zero percent of what I believe to be “independent thoughts” are indeed free and clear.
Worse still, there’s really no stopping this freight train. Data is becoming one of the most, if not the most, valuable asset in the world. The organizations that collect and own data have a societal responsibility to be transparent in how and why they’re using consumer data.
Just “my” thoughts.