Brave New World

Okay, I am now officially worried. Really worried.

A few days ago, The Guardian reported on a recent conference of internet hackers, held in Las Vegas. (Yes, even hackers evidently have conferences….)

Using “psychographic” profiles of individual voters generated from publicly stated interests really does work, according to new research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The controversial practice allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning, and is being used by firms including Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to better target voters with political advertising with so-called “dark ads”.

Most of us don’t consider ourselves targets for “dark ads” aka propaganda. We like to believe that we are different–that we’re thoughtful consumers of information, people who can “smell a rat” or otherwise detect spin and disinformation. We shake our heads over reports like the one about the gullible 28-year-old who shot up a Washington Pizza Parlor because stories on social media and conservative websites had convinced him that Hillary Clinton was operating a Satanic child sex ring out of its (nonexistent) basement.

News flash: we are all more gullible than we like to believe. Confirmation bias is built in to human DNA.

Psychographic profiling classifies people into personality types using data from social networks such as Facebook. Sumner’s research focused on replicating some of the key findings of psychographic research by crafting adverts specifically targeted at certain personality types. Using publicly available data to ensure that the adverts were seen by the right people at the right time, Sumner tested how effective such targeting can be.

The referenced study used information that Facebook already generates about those who use its platform, and created two groups: one composed of “high-authoritarian” conservatives, and a “low-authoritarian” group of liberals.

Knowing the psychographic profiles of the two groups is more useful than simply being able to accurately guess what positions they already hold; it can also be used to craft messages to specifically target those groups, to more effectively shift their opinions. Sumner created four such adverts, two aimed at increasing support for internet surveillance and two aimed at decreasing it, each targeted to a low or high authoritarian group.

For example, the highly authoritarian group’s anti-surveillance advert used the slogan “They fought for your freedom. Don’t give it away!”, over an image of the D-Day landings, while the low authoritarian group’s pro-surveillance message was “Crime doesn’t stop where the internet starts: say YES to state surveillance”.

Sure enough, the targeted adverts did significantly better. The high-authoritarian group was significantly more likely to share a promoted post aimed at them than a similar one aimed at their opposites, while the low authoritarian group ranked the advert aimed at them as considerably more persuasive than the advert that wasn’t.

Think about the implications of this. Political campaigns can now target different messages to different groups far more efficiently and effectively than they could when the only mechanisms available were direct mail campaigns or placement of television ads. As the article noted, this technology allows politicians to appeal to the worst side of voters in an almost undiscoverable manner.

The importance of motivating and turning out your base is a “given” in electoral politics, and these new tools are undoubtedly already in use–further eroding the democratic ideal in which votes are cast after citizens weigh information provided through public policy debates conducted by honorable candidates using verifiable facts.

Thanks to gerrymandering, most of us don’t have genuine choices for Congress or our state legislatures on election day. Now, thanks to technology, we won’t be able to tell the difference between facts and “alternative facts.”


  1. There only new thing is that political parties are using it. High authoritarian sounds like George Lakoff’s Patriarchal and Low authoritarian corresponds to his Communal.

    With regard to targeted ads, every time you click on one of the quizzes on Facebook (Only a genius can answer these 20 questions) you provide your FB profile to the outfit that posted the quiz. And the quizzes are designed to make you feel good. Even if you have to guess at several of the answers, your score is usually, nearly always, very good. Bu they have you in their data bases, and can sell that information to advertising companies or to political consultants.

  2. Pat, two can play that game. Next time one of those quizzes comes up, answer it the opposite of what you think. If enough people did this it would screw the outcome. It would also allow you to receive what they are using to target other people.

    Mess with me… I mess with you.

  3. Regarding using Facebook as a source to “profile” individuals to target us for those “dark ads”; it took me awhile to figure out why friends were misreading posts I shared. I believe people should be warned about misinformation posted on Facebook but my added comments against the posts were not being “shared” with the post; making it appear I supported the crap.

    Pat; I believe once we activate our computer and sign onto the Internet, whatever sources we use, we are automatically “in their data bases” and a target for all hackers. Like catalog companies used to sell our information and we begin receiving unsolicited information in many forms; the process has simply gone viral “thanks” to the Internet. I realized recently I no longer receive mail order catalogs in the mail but do receive ads and solicitations from numerous political organizations. We have little privacy left in our personal worlds today. This lack of privacy makes gerrymandering much easier to accomplish without our knowledge or forewarning.

  4. Pat is correct. If you build an ad on Facebook, you can get very specific with who sees it (placement). The more I know about you, the better the placement. Why waste money broadcasting to readers who aren’t interested in what you’re selling?

    As for being an informed voter, Albert Einstein told us in the 40’s that oligarchic interests own all the major institutions in the country so making an informed decision is almost impossible.

    Which is why the next part of my post is even more disturbing than targeted ads.

    YouTube and its owner Google is beginning to censor voices from the right and left. At first, the pro-Trump groups thought it was their hate speech on the internet. It’s not. They’re purging and demonetizing progressive sites as well. The Establishment does not want dissenting voices. Censorship will only cause more agitation and public unrest because the public (specifically the young people who don’t accept the TV news as legit) know it’s about manipulation.

    The Nation’s recent article about the findings of intelligence veterans is an indication. I covered the VIP letter to Trump as well. These former IC professionals also pointed out the WMD’s findings were bogus. In the recent case, they’ve analyzed all the data available which states the “Russian Hacks” were really internal leaks because the speeds to download the data were too fast. The Nation used some of their own researchers to vet what the IC pros did, and they said their findings were 90-95% accurate.

    The DNC immediately fired a letter out to The Nation calling their findings “conspiracies” and leading to “conspiracy theories” devised by Trump.

    The Washington Establishment and its Elite Media want to control the narrative. Their word is gospel and all dissenting opinions are being quashed. Not sure about anyone else, but if this isn’t Fascism, I’m not sure what to call it.

  5. Theresa- it doesn’t matter how you answer the questions. It doesn’t even really matter what the questions are in most cases. It’s your profile data that matters.

  6. I think the scariest thing to come out of the hackers’ convention was the test of voting machine vulnerability. Turns out we’re worse off than we thought and we thought we were in a pretty bad place.

  7. Todd,

    As you have pointed out there is no real dissent. It’s all CAMOUFLAGED fascism.

    It’s IMPOSSIBLE to have a working democracy if you can’t talk or write or especially do anything COMMENSURABLY. That’s why partisan politics have become for the most part worthless. It surely isn’t the answer to the JAM we are all experiencing.

  8. The core of American politics is Fascist. It’s now part the DNA of our body politic. It’s been that way since the early 70’s when the oligarchy decided to manipulate the DNA toward, at first, to what appeared to be a THEOCRACY but, in fact, the long term goal was always FASCISM. How else would they have been able to maintain control? They aren’t that stupid.

    Steve Bannon could read the direction, perfectly, and jumped on his chance with Donald Trump and the gullible American public. And now we’re UP SHITS CREEK.

    So the $64,000 question is: Can we find a paddle?

  9. I never click on fb quizzes because I know they are there to collect data on me. I also never “click Like and Share if you agree” on the memes that request it because they also are collecting data.

  10. Sheila, it is Monday morning and I am trying to deal with my cranky body. Now, I have discovered through your column that, to quote BB King once again, that “I can’t trust nobody but my momma and she may be jiv’in me too.” Truthfully, which seems like an odd word to use at the moment, maintaining one’s individual integrity is a growing daily challenge as the nonsense assaults by the manipulators of information never stop. In many ways, the internet seems a curse but perhaps this whine is really about modern contemporary life on our little planet. Those of us wanting to maintain the ideals and hold harmless freedoms of benign rational democracy, feel more and more pressure to roll over, pull up the covers, and go hermit. So I turn to those who are younger than me. I turn to those who manage to clearly understand that earth remains “the right place for love” in order to be re-charged, to fight the good fight of leading decent lives in what can still be an open and sharing society capable of addressing the enormous tasks facing all of humankind.

  11. Good grief!
    But on a positive note, your blog showed up in my FB newsfeed this morning. WooHoo, a great antidote to fake news!

  12. We have always been manipulated, from even before the pamphletering of Thomas Paine onward. Only the more sophisticated means and their more refined purposes have changed. The lesson is to ignore question and answer games for sale to manipulators and maintain a steady course based on one’s principles. Can’t be done? DNA? I think not. We are bombarded with propaganda from the rich and corporate class daily, but I have never been and will never be a friend of their vision of the rest of us as ATM machines while they plunder our treasury. Never! We are not helpless due to electronic sophistication. Don’t participate in their mind games. Just say no.

  13. I saw your post on my FB feed today, whoo hoo!

    The hackers at the convention scare me and that is why I still say to this day that if you think Russia stopped short of changing the votes on Nov 8th, I have ocean front property to sell you in AZ.

  14. AginLGrl – I’ll take a two-bedroom condo there on the beach in Phoenix if the price is right. I have alread bought raw land in the Colorado Rockies so that I can sell it later and make a bundle from those who want to fish in Lake Kansas. Har!

  15. As a relative newcomer to Indiana in the summer of 2004, the below-linked story I discovered about ‘The History of Hate in Indiana: How the Ku Klux Klan Took over Indiana’s Halls of Power’ is both an eye-opener and a cause for thought for long-time native Hoosiers. For some like me, it seems the KKK was analogous to the Mafia where business owners, where politicians believed they first needed to curry favor with the Klan to remain protected, relevant in business or politics.

    In 1920, the Indiana Klan counted among its members the governor of Indiana, more than half of the state legislature and an estimated 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state. More than 250,000 Hoosiers swelled the Klan’s ranks – some because they believed in its anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic message, others because being on good terms with the Klan was necessary for their business or political aspirations – making it the largest Klan organization in the country.

    The story complete with photographs is at this link:

  16. We have to join them.

    As repugnant as Fox News has been to all of us, as dysfunctional as extremism is at solving problems, as fundamentally dishonest as manipulating minds is, do we have a choice anymore? Can we afford to be morally pure in a sea of pirates?

    I really hate to say it but if we don’t win politically our high principles will be stuffed down our throats.

    We owe it to both ourselves and the future to take America back while it still stands for something.

    No holds barred.

  17. If you mean DEFCON, yep it has been a thing for over 20 years. And it is attended by Government People as well as industry and private entities or groups. Id’s are sacrosanct and it is probably one of the most concentrated meeting of computer sciences people on the planet. Some of our Government Cyber Security methods and HACKING METHODS have come out of this conference and the interactions that take place there in Vegas. Like they say “What happens in Vegas, STAYS in Vegas!”… And the software you speak of (it is an algorithm) is not just something that showed up at DEFCON – it was developed by DARPA some time back using research from University cyber think tanks. It is based on a profiling algorithm to find pattern recognition, with a lot more refinement than when it first appeared some 15 years ago. You see most of this shows itself in public -unless leaked (and I would not want to be the leaker) an average of 5 to 10 years AFTER the fact – put on your thinking cap(!) So it is not that big of a surprise – the same program is used by Amazon, Google, JET, etc., etc.. ~8) Big Brother has been watching YOU for quite a few years – that is why I don’t care if I write something inflammatory or that pisses someone off… it doesn’t matter it all goes into some profile in someones databank… it is called ‘data mining’. This, Ms. Kennedy is the world that has been being developed in the shadows all around us and the devil that resides in the machines that we use to post these little replies…

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