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.


The Profit Motive

One of the many troubling features of our current civic landscape is the steady erosion of boundaries between sectors. Thanks to “privatization,” or–more accurately–contracting and outsourcing, the lines between public, private and nonprofit have steadily blurred.

The problem is that different sectors have different purposes/missions. For-profit companies exist to make money; nonprofit organizations are mission-driven, and the public sector is supposed to serve the public and safeguard the common good. These descriptions obviously gloss over the many nuances in each sector, but they are a serviceable shorthand.

When the profit motive characterizes all of the sectors, our society no longer works the way it should.

I get “paper” newspapers on Sunday mornings, and look forward to reading the news old-style. Last Sunday, I opened the Indianapolis Star to discover that it had engaged in actual journalism, in a story about charter schools established by ITT.

The strongest selling point of the Early Career Academy, a tax-funded charter school scheduled to open next year in Indianapolis, is that its high school students will earn an associate degree free of charge.

But the degree comes with a catch: The credits from that degree likely will not transfer to any major university in the state if the students want to pursue four-year degrees.

There is, however, one institution guaranteed to accept the credits — the for-profit college sponsoring the charter school.

ITT, you may recall, is being sued in several states by individuals and the federal government, who allege that it provides an inferior education for which it charges exorbitant tuition, and employs unethical, high-pressure sales techniques to “lock students into an education most are unable to finish and into loans many are unable to pay off.”

When I opened my Sunday New York Times, the front-page story was even worse–the headline was “Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance with Republican Attorneys General” and the article detailed the cozy–and highly unethical–arrangements whereby  state Attorneys General are conspiring with, and carrying the baggage for, fossil fuel companies that have “generously” contributed large sums to their campaigns.  They are suing the EPA and otherwise resisting federal regulations meant to protect air and water quality–purportedly on behalf of their states, but in actuality on behalf of their political patrons.

There are plenty of lessons we can take from these revelations. (I’d probably start with the premise that for-profit educational institutions should automatically be viewed with extreme suspicion.) Certainly, these revelations are more evidence–as if we needed it–that the role of money in politics is toxic and corrupting.

However, I think there is a larger warning lurking in these, and similar examples of venal behavior. When we fail to recognize the different ethical obligations that attach to the different sectors–when every organization and every job is focused on a fiscal bottom line–the structures we have built to be complementary become competitive and corrupt.

We have spent the past thirty-plus years demeaning and “hollowing out” the enterprise we call government, and in the process, we have lost  the very concept of a public. “Public service” is an oxymoron. Well over half of our purportedly nonprofit/voluntary organizations are so totally dependent upon government grants and contracts that they have become unrecognized arms of the state. Meanwhile, we have idealized private enterprise and the private sector beyond recognition, delegitimizing the rules and regulations that are necessary to ensure a level economic playing field and a healthy, sustainable economy.

The result is on the front pages of our newspapers, and it isn’t pretty.


Here’s My Question

A study recently published in The Archives of General Psychiatry adds to a body of evidence linking the growing incidence of autism to early-life exposure to pollution. According to the study, children with autism are two to three times more likely than other children to have been exposed to car exhaust, smog, and other air pollutants during their earliest days.

“We’re not saying that air pollutioncauses autism. We’re saying it may be a risk factor for autism,” says Heather Volk, lead author on the new study and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. “Autism is a complex disorder and it’s likely there are many factors contributing,” she says.

Now, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV. (Nor do I have a subscription to the Archives of General Psychiatry–I came across a reference to the study while reading another journal article.) I’m not a climate scientist either. So–just like the deniers who prefer to believe that climate change is a big myth–I do not possess the ability to independently review the evidence and judge its persuasiveness.

I understand the resistance to environmental regulations by those whose economic interests are affected–the oil and gas producers and others whose profits would suffer if we really got serious about carbon emissions. I know those interests have been heavily invested in a campaign of “disinformation” and that they’ve managed to confuse a lot of people who–like me–aren’t scientists able to independently evaluate the evidence.

But let’s just assume that the deniers are right–that 99% of the scientists who are able to evaluate the evidence are wrong, and the other 1% are right. Why wouldn’t it still make sense to clean up the air and water? Even the deniers aren’t arguing that pollution is good. We have plenty of irrefutable evidence linking air pollution to higher incidences of respiratory diseases. There are these growing links to autism and other disorders. And as anyone whose traveled in China can attest, bad air quality can be a real turn-off–I’ve yet to meet anyone who enjoys breathing black air.

Here’s the calculus as I see it: one the one hand, there is no doubt that continuing our polluting ways negatively affects our quality of life. There is evidence that it contributes significantly to a variety of diseases, and overwhelming consensus that it is warming the earth among those who actually know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, there is no benefit whatsoever from continuing to pollute–except to companies whose profits depend upon continued emissions.

On one side, cleaner air, healthier people, and the possibility of saving the planet. On the other side, big oil.

Seems pretty clear-cut to me.


Speaking of Gushers….

American taxpayers subsidize the giant oil companies to the tune of 4 billion dollars a year.

The American tax code contains a variety of provisions that make oil production one of the most heavily subsidized businesses in the country, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.

According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, released in 2005, returns on capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry.

For many of the smaller oil companies, the tax on capital investment returns is so low that it is more than eliminated by various deductions and credits. Incredible as it may seem, some companies’ returns on investment are higher after taxes than before.

In fact, oil profits are gushing. According to the organization Public Citizen, from the time George Bush became President in 2001 through the first quarter of 2007, the top five oil companies in the United States recorded profits of $464 billion. By 2011, those numbers were beginning to look like small change: in the second quarter of 2011 alone, the big five oil companies made 36 billion in profit.

That’s profit, not total revenues.

Meanwhile, you and I–together with other American taxpayers–continue to provide the industry with subsidies that have been estimated at between 4 and 8 billion dollars a year.

The various tax breaks enjoyed by big oil probably made sense when the industry was in its infancy. They make no sense at all when the industry is not just profitable, but obscenely so. Nevertheless, a move to eliminate those subsidies failed yesterday in the Senate, despite strong support from President Obama. While the proposal received support from a majority of the Senate, it failed to garner the filibuster-proof 60 votes that are required in order to get anything done in this era of Republican intransigence.

I suppose there is something admirable in the GOP’s loyalty to the 1%–those George W. Bush once called “his base.”   They refuse to tax the rich (and by “tax,” I mean raising the top marginal tax rate by 3% to the still historically low levels of the Clinton administration). They refuse to eliminate or reduce subsidies for obscenely profitable oil companies–indeed, Paul Ryan’s budget proposal would visit a world of hurt on people who depend on Medicaid, Medicare or other social programs, but it reportedly increases subsidies to big oil.

So much for the GOP’s purported concern about deficits.

From a fiscal policy perspective, these positions are simply unfathomable. And it is really difficult to believe they are politically palatable. Maybe the theory is that if they raise enough of a fuss about transvaginal probes and contraception, no one will notice.