The oxymoron of the new millennium -- like the well-known “military intelligence” example from the WWII era -- seems to be “private advertising.”
Somehow, in an age when traditional advertising -- such as newspaper and TV spots -- require a political candidate to lamely provide a bumper to any ad with the statement, “I am so and so, and I approved this message,” social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and even Google not only do not have to disclose who paid for an ad, but also do not have to disclose the ad itself.
Why should we care?
As worried as I may be about gerrymandering, Trump and gun control -- this one may just top my list. Why? Because it affects all of these other issues, in ways that we are only just beginning to comprehend.
The internet provides us daily with many challenges to the essential, but thorny, “freedom of speech” clause in the Constitution. Not only in advertising, but also in the daily onslaught from anonymous “trolls” who like to express an opinion about anything, usually negative and inflammatory, simply to get a reaction.
As a businessowner who often gets “trolled” about our products (often anonymously, by people who have never actually seen the product) on Facebook, online forums, and other social media platforms, the anonymity is frustrating and annoying. As a private citizen, it worries me that people, myself included, may be ruthlessly manipulated without our knowledge.
I am a firm believer in free speech -- even when I don't agree with what is being said. The words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906 are just as true today -- “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But I do not believe in your right to say it anonymously. If you feel strongly enough to say something, you should stand by what you say.
When I first started submitting op/eds to the Capital Times several months ago, I had many second thoughts. As a businessowner, I don't like introducing politics into business. Customers may be offended by what I say, and we might even lose business, which could threaten the livelihoods of our employees.
As a resident of small village Wisconsin -- a state that Trump did narrowly win -- I could be putting my happy little life at risk.
I could have stated all of my opinions anonymously. But I chose to do it openly, because I believe that you should stand up for what you feel is right.
If you have a tweet, Facebook post, meme or advertisement, it should be clearly marked as to the original source. No internet anonymity.
We need legislation on the federal level, and we need it immediately.
And who knows -- maybe it will bring about the return of civility to the internet. Yes, kids, there was a time when the internet was a polite and civil place.
In the political -- and geopolitical -- arena, internet advertising has been “weaponized” and is potentially more of a threat than nukes or artificial intelligence.
For a political candidate or government official, it has to be devastating. It is hard to have an enemy that is unseen, unaccountable, and free to say anything they wish. To make matters worse, it seems our elected officials, perhaps in their desire to use this “private” advertising themselves, do not want to end the use of these divisive tools.
We have learned well after the fact that over $100,000 worth of ads on Facebook were bought by the Russians. Their purpose: to promote Trump, discredit Hillary Clinton, and generally foment political, racial and ethnic division.
Then, as the Guardian reported recently, the Trump campaign not only did the same thing, but had Facebook employees embedded onsite to assist with “microtargeting.” Microtargeting, which is the dark side of your Facebook and Twitter account (and Google search history as well), gives the advertiser the ability to know in advance whether or not you will be open to -- or possibly motivated or enraged by -- a particular message.
Germany's Third Reich propaganda machine developed what was termed “connotation indexes” (including the art of using hot-button words to get an emotional reaction -- sound familiar?) into an effective societal weapon.
In the 1980s, “geodemographic targeting” (the theory that “birds of a feather, flock together,” where you can determine potential political leanings down to zipcode level) was the state of the art.
Since then, marketing strategy has expanded exponentially as data collection (or “mining”) on consumers/voters has also expanded exponentially -- down to the individual/household level. Data on every opinion you express, every link you click on, every post you “like,” every term you “search” for is collected, stored and analyzed. And is for sale.
And no one stops them. Instead, marketers, politicians and apparently foreign governments are willing to pay well for that data.
The social media giants pledge to “police themselves” and everyone shrugs and says that is fine.
The social media giants may occasionally get a mild slap on the wrist when abuses of this practice are exposed, but no laws are enacted -- or even proposed -- to curb them. And, as long as they are making money, even from foreign intelligence services bent on messing with our politics and our society -- they are happily complicit.
And even more shocking, our politicians act as though the ads that were microtargeted -- such that, by design, only a few individuals in certain places ever saw them -- are somehow “private.”
Think about that.
Why should these advertisements be withheld? How will you know if you have been manipulated unless every single “fake” advertisement or tweet is exposed publicly?
The sophistication of microtargeting is such that a political campaign, interest group -- or even the Russians -- could place ads, posts or tweets that said, for example, “Donald Trump grabbed your mother's _____ on July 15th, 1997,” which would only be seen by you.
Unchallenged, and apparently difficult to trace back to a particular source.
The fact that these message tools can influence actual votes should frighten everyone regardless of political affiliation.
In this age of manipulation, are we to remain sheep, without the right to know how we are being manipulated, or by whom? And if not, how do we make it stop?
Leaving it to the social media giants has not worked well. Perhaps it is time that the FCC applied the same sort of rules that are imposed on television and print.
Howard Waddell was a labor official in the Clinton administration under Robert Reich. He lives in Monticello, Wisconsin.
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