Data, Privacy And Propaganda

Every so often, I become convinced that we are entering a not-so-brave new world dominated by the wunderkind who are able to manipulate the internet and social media.

I’m old enough to remember–vividly!–when the internet was hailed as the great gift to democracy. Finally, people could express themselves free of the gatekeepers–the reporters, editors and other obstacles to unfettered communication. Instead, as one Brookings Institution scholar has noted, the business model of the internet—collecting and manipulating personal information to sell targeted services—has become a  tool for attacking democracy. Worse, as we learned in 2016, Russia and other foreign adversaries have proven especially talented in exploiting this capability.

Of course, the assaults on American electoral integrity don’t all come from other countries. In January–before media reporting became all Covid-19 all the time–the Independent Media Institute interviewed the producer of a film warning about the (mis)use of the Internet and social media by Republican operatives intent upon re-electing Trump.

The producer was Josh Fox, an Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker; his last documentary was “Gasland,” which has been credited with jump-starting the global anti-fracking movement. His new project, commissioned by HBO, is “The Truth Has Changed,” described in the article as “a live theater-based project that sounds the alarm on the right-wing disinformation campaign working to secure President Trump’s reelection.”

The Fox interview began with a fairly chilling description of the multiple  sophisticated ways in which fossil fuel companies had tried to discredit him and “Gasland.”

They created hate emails specifically designed for my personality. There were tweets threats; there were death threats on Twitter. They highlighted my life in the theater, my hairline, the fact that my family’s Jewish; they found out that I had quit smoking several years ago, but they found a picture of me with a cigarette in my hand online from the past, and they ran that as a pro-fracking TV ad in Ohio saying, “This environmentalist is a smoker.” They followed me around the country for years. They booked shadow tours of our films. They tapped into ethnic and regional stereotyping. And then they tried to paint me as some kind of rich, intellectual, New York City liberal, which is not the case. They flung all of these stereotypes at me. They gathered all this information about me—my background, my ethnicity, my age, my race, where I live, where I went to school, how much money I made, what I had done in my previous life before the films.

One of the people heavily involved in the campaign to discredit Fox was Steve Bannon. It didn’t take long for Fox to recognize that the techniques Bannon had used against him were being deployed against Hillary Clinton and the entire American electorate in 2016.

In developing “The Truth Has Changed,” I made two startling realizations. One was that the people who ran those campaigns against me had a very strong hand in influencing the 2016 election: Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart when all these attacks were happening against me, took over the Trump campaign and his team profiled the electorate in the exact same way.

 Fox explained how the  techniques that allow advertisers to selectively segment audiences are used to influence voters. Political operatives have access to the personal data of tens of millions of people, and they use that information to create highly personalized ads that appeal to different personality types–and play to different prejudices.

The same folks are currently rallying white supremacists all across the world and are making a bid to get Trump reelected in 2020. Their digital campaign created 5.9 million different ad variations in 2016, versus just 66,000 ads created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was so key to Trump’s victory that Trump’s digital campaign manager Brad Parscale is now his campaign manager.

Fox says that we have entered the “age of misinformation,” and the subsequent explosion of conspiracy theories about the  Coronavirus would seem to support that thesis. Perhaps his most chilling observation, however, was this:

If you put out a racist ad and only racists can see it, it causes absolutely no controversy, but it’s deeply effective in rallying people.

This is why privacy matters.

In our not-so-brave new world, if We the People don’t own and control our own data, it will be used by the corrupt and power-hungry in massive disinformation campaigns–campaigns of which we are totally  unaware–with truly terrifying consequences.


  1. “if We the People don’t own and control our own data…”

    Sorry to report, but that boat sailed a long time ago. It sailed when commercial entities offered their customers “membership and discount cards” that their computerized registers could use to track every item, time and amount of each purchase, thus giving them information about your personal life that when collated allowed them to advertise what they knew you would buy. Then they sold that information to the highest bidder.

    Looking for real and imagined safety, the public moved on to handing over their public autonomy by allowing unlimited surveillance in the hopes of security. Your phone tracks you and now so does your car. And the cameras in public places and on your doorbell!

    As for the internet, that’s just the icing on the cake. Not only is the data on your purchases collected, so are all of your random searches for information, what sites you visit regularly, who you contact, and somewhere in that mountain of information are your medical records.

    Put that Genii back in the bottle? I don’t think so. But what might be done is to turn the tables on those who would use that information for evil. Where is funding for using that information to persuade people to be good, to do good? Why have we built an economic system that profits evil and not good?

    It is all connected… and not in a good way.

  2. Another way information is collected about you involves those “quizzes” on Facebook. For example, “Only someone with an IQ over 140 can answer these questions,” or, “If you can answer these questions, you are equivalent to a Phd.”

    Every time you do one of these quizzes, you open your page to those who are looking for information. They collect everything about you on the page, including your list of “friends,” which gives them more people to target.

    Leave your ego behind when you get on Facebook. You don’t need to know how many so-called difficult questions you can answer. In fact, if you pass on them, you are smarter than the ones who do the quizzes and think they have an IQ of 140.

  3. Why does it always seem to be Republicans who promulgate all the mischief? Why is it that the election fraud cases all stem from Republican operatives? Wasn’t it the Indiana Republican Sec. of State who was arrested for ballot box tampering? Wasn’t it the Ne’er-do-well fool in North Carolina who tried to fiddle the election for a Republican House seat? Why do Republicans have to cheat? Answer below.

    Steve Bannon, the self-proclaimed Leninist has said, repeatedly, that he wants to destroy our government, a treasonous offense. But he and the orange shit stain have NO idea what to put in its place.

    So, is that it? Destroy democracy one way or another? Another cloying question is how did sum bag of badger poop like Robert Mercer ever get so rich? Ah. The internet.

    I’m sorry to have to bring it up again, but the infamous memorandum by Lewis Powell in 1971 called for corporate/banking America to rise up, organize and, literally, buy the government. Fred Koch and his two disgusting sons Chuck & Dave, took that challenge and have been using their billions, over subsequent years, to do just that. To criminal ideologues like these and the star chamber denizens of corporate/banking weasels, the internet was a perfect, cheap and critical tool for them to finish their job.

    So, here we are with the most crooked legal mind in the world acting as our AG, but really just helping to fulfill the Republican quest to turn our beloved democratic republic into a corporate/banking kleptocracy. Well done, voters. These wretches KNEW you weren’t paying attention. Burglars work at night, remember?

    Our choices boil down to two things: (1) VOTE/VOTE/VOTE and remove the Republican scum from politics altogether while we still can, or (2) expect your children and grandchildren to be fighting the next civil war.

  4. FYI – Josh Fox has an hour long talk show with interesting guests every weekday afternoon at 4:30 EDT on The Young Turks.

  5. I’d like to add that you should take some care in which friend requests you say yes to. Many of them are bots that are targeted to specific users. It’s nice to have a thousand friends, but it’s nicer to have a dozen real friends. If you don’t know someone and you don’t have any friends in common, just say no.

  6. Vern!
    ddi ya app that today to get that,whatever?good view to again bring up, lewis powell,good time to remind how that intercepted the gates era of computer mismanagement.. i myself wrote about this in 10th grade (1971)how the goverment needs ,or at least needed a warrent to collect info outside of an investigation. whereas,corps etc,are private,and dont need squat. they came along with why they needed it,and a socalled agenda to target consumers.,did ya app that? of course,to avoid the on air shows to skip commercials. did ya surf and leave those cookies,in your mobile? there were plenty of warnings from consumer groups,about your childs toy being a source of info,TMI info about your kids,sans the everyday person..
    theres plenty of just app it up! no past record here,because they dont want you to realize that they like a mailing list,are making money off your personals, like that fit,exercise,travel mobile,and stopping via google map has made a you a catagory to sell to perspective buyers of such. and of course theres the likes of the FBI who warrnet such stuff for their need to knows,after all,your now profiled,by corp entities and its for sale..ive never amazoned,never open that endless window,(thats on both sides folks) to their,needs.. the euros have GDRP privacy laws,when i open the guardian news service,im asked if i want my surfing there,private,thanks for asking,and being,up front..whereas,i dont face twit etc. the fact that those questions about my privacy dont exist,or, cleverly hidden,whereas you have to seek out any of those needs, afterall,they effect said bottom lines,above your needs..the misinfo,well if the moderators at goog,face etc had any clue,it would have never been allowed,but then again,its the fantasy world they produce,and influence with,that ,well you forgot to ask about..just app it up, and watch,what ya cant see.. as far a the world where your judged,juried and executed by the masses,what did ya expect from the freeworld of ignorance,and those who make a buck, securing your thoughts to be exploited for their gain..that alone shows the mismanagnent,by the masses in their never ending quest for corprate America laughs at our endless games,.app it up!!lewis powell would be proud..

  7. one news story today,huff, NoDak govener with tears in his eyes,about wearing a mask in public,dont judge,its our needs over potus…sure, on friday night at the new starion sports complex in mandan nodak,i was driving by,,,on my way home, packed, the outside bleachers on the west side,from the roadway its obvious,no social distancing,no masks, just abunch of people intent on ignoring the outcomes of passing on the virus.on the east side bleachers far fewer people, and spread apart…i was at a job site that day,two workers just got over the virus,or some sort of. they were lucky. a one day down,the other 4 days down. but just walked back onto the job site as it didnt effort was made prior that these guys were home with a virus.i was unaware until three days later,and it was my first delivery to this site..thats misinformation or, denial,pick one..tell the gov, as usual, hes full of shit..i wear a mask,i have afew n95 i had stashed to do my grinding work.and i insist on the 6 foot mark. though my job seldom has more than one other to be there just for a safety standpoint.i work basically alone.
    i have masks ,my wife who works at the truck stop wears ine too..

  8. Jack,

    No, I didn’t APP anything today. The research leading to my 5 books coughed up the Powell hairball. Sheila has referenced that “memorandum” a couple times, as have I. You can Google it, or, better yet go on-line and buy “Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism”, Chapter 11, I think. I inserted it in full. The Bannon/Mercer stuff is also out there as on-the-record quotes.

    These people are really scary and…of course, disgusting.

  9. Vern,
    thanks for the kickback. ill be looking at independant book sellers. i order through them.
    theres a news bit, intercept, today
    influential evagical group mobilizing to reelect trump. if ya wann see the act in progress and why.. good view of the overall topic today.. UIP has a app im sure..

  10. Let me just toss this out here…we are ranked 25th on the World’s Democracy Index, and there are no measurements for internet usage. So, there is that.

    The IC was caught in a lie when they told the world that they didn’t spy on American people. Remember, it was only terrorists from other lands.

    Then, a young government contractor got miffed about that lie and stole a cache of documents from his contractor and shared that cache with Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian in the U.K.

    It turns out, our IC (our government) was lying to us. The NSA has been recording every text message, every email, every phone call, etc. thanks to the cooperation of our largest telecom providers.

    Furthermore, the CIA has a rather substantial entrepreneurial venture fund to provide start-ups like Zuckerberg with capital to fund social apps, which are very expensive when they are free at first. Do you remember when Facebook was open to all users? No ads and very few commercial users.

    Do you think there were any strings attached to upstart monies provided by our IC community? 😉

    I remember after Trump was elected, and after his inauguration, AG Sessions was told to find out who organized the protests against Trump. He demanded that ISP providers provide a list of names who visited the website organizing the demonstrations. What happens to these companies if they refuse? Can our federal government yank their license to underwrite ISPs, or deny them access to the internet?

    Now, the even bigger question, why doesn’t OUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT step in and stop the disinformation campaigns of the far-right funded by the Kochs and Chambers across the USA (ALEC)?


  11. Corporations collect data on us in order to direct marketing into the most productive directions in the void. No problem in my view but I’m not normally an impulse buyer.

    Political operatives use that same technique to direct propaganda and lies to those most susceptible to manipulation by specific messages. A terrible problem.

    Who can solve the problem? Only government. However in a democracy government is created by those who are most susceptible to manipulation.

    That means that in order to get out of the swamp we need to temporarily suspend democracy.

    How? Vote blue no matter who this one election to let the oligarchs (royalists) know that we’re on to them.

  12. From the Guardian:
    A former Apple contractor who helped blow the whistle on the company’s program to listen to users’ Siri recordings has decided to go public, in protest at the lack of action taken as a result of the disclosures.

    In a letter announcing his decision, sent to all European data protection regulators, Thomas le Bonniec said: “It is worrying that Apple (and undoubtedly not just Apple) keeps ignoring and violating fundamental rights and continues their massive collection of data.

    “I am extremely concerned that big tech companies are basically wiretapping entire populations despite European citizens being told the EU has one of the strongest data protection laws in the world. Passing a law is not good enough: it needs to be enforced upon privacy offenders.”

    Le Bonniec, 25, worked as a subcontractor for Apple in its Cork offices, transcribing user requests in English and French, until he quit in the summer of 2019 due to ethical concerns with the work. “They do operate on a moral and legal grey area,” he told the Guardian at the time, “and they have been doing this for years on a massive scale. They should be called out in every possible way.”

  13. Vern – You are right to write that Bannon is an admitted Leninist who wants “to destroy the administrative state,” but I question your view whether he has no idea for its replacement. I think as an admitted Leninist he knows perfectly well what he wants the replacement to be but is afraid to prematurely lay it out for scrutiny at this juncture in our evolving world of misinformation and loss of privacy for fear of public reprisal. First he has to get his foot inside the door with sufficiently vague language to soften us for a soft coup, and ten to one the coup will not lead to establishment of a democratic society.

    Lenin, the murderer of Rasputin as well as all those of the Romanov Dynasty (even the Romanov children) along with his buddy Stalin, was a communist, and Bannon proclaims that he is a Leninist – so draw your own conclusions as to the form of government Bannon wants to see. I have drawn mine. I think Bannon at base is a bright but disagreeable individual who simply enjoys troublemaking and the notice good or bad it engenders, as in, if we had a communist government he might well be agitating for a capitalistic or socialistic lite form of government and economic organization.

    As to today’s topic, I have been waiting since Roe for the Supreme Court to find a guarantee of a right to privacy in our Constitution, and I’m still waiting, and given the big business of invasion of such privacy by commercial and political interests described today in Sheila’s blog, it appears I will continue to wait. If Asimov were with us he would not be shocked by this turn of events, but I’m no Asimov, and I find this continuing, sophisticated and profitable business of invading our individual privacy more than troubling. Are we humans to be stripped of every last vestige of being human in favor of marketplace profits? Apparently.

  14. We need an equally effective campaign to mislead the disinformation strategies. Since much of this is bot driven software, I’m sure the good guys could develop their own decoy bots to drive users and other bots towards the wrong conclusion. This is war and our side needs its own counterespionage techniques to put a monkey wrench in the other side’s plans. It would be nice to counter lies with truth, but the other side isn’t interested in truth. They want affirmation. So you lead them down the deep conspiracy rathole to discover that the conspiracies are being created by the rats leading the misinformation campaign they’ve been swallowing hook, line, and sinker. But that discovery has to appear unintended. And we’ve got to anticipate the next move and use that to sow doubt. So you send out a message to selected “trusted” followers that you plan to send out some made up “facts” and ask for their opinion. And try to use lies you think the right wing nutjobs will push. We have to be more devious than them.

  15. I agree with Peggy on the Facebook friend matter. I don’t accept a ‘friend request’ for/from anyone I don’t know personally, except for less than a handful of folks, like Prof. Kennedy here, or folks vouched for by someone I personally know. Get many suggestions and an occasional request from someone I’ve never heard of and don’t know. With things as they are today, it seems more safe to be careful.

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