Infowars is Aptly Named
We are at war and the weapons are information. Think about the phrases we’ve been hearing since the election; fake news, alternative facts, gag orders. Wikileaks’ whole shtick is releasing ill-gotten, highly sensitive information. Russia’s influence on the election was entirely information based. They are accused of hacking the DNC and spreading fake news to sway voters.
Think about your last Facebook showdown with an ideological opponent. Did the conversation surround ideas? Or were you bombarded with links to articles and news stories providing anecdotal evidence as to why you’re wrong, why your cause is illegitimate, why you’re a hypocrite, or why your brand of politics is evil? Maybe you’re the one using information as ammunition. I’ve been guilty of it myself. No judgment here.
I could go on about the dangers of discussing ideas within the context of isolated incidents that make the news, but there are more pressing issues. If Facebook bickerers are soldiers with info-guns, the newest white house administration is whipping out info-tanks, info-missiles, and maybe even an ‘infotomic’ bomb. The tanks and missiles are the fake news, alt facts, and gag orders.
The notion of “fake news” took off when Russia was accused of hiring a bunch of internet trolls to release real looking fake news articles to scare the crap out of Joe America. I haven’t specifically looked for any of these fake news articles, but if they do exist, it wouldn’t surprise me very much. Unfortunately, even if it was a baseless accusation, the Trump administration took the concept and ran with it. Now they have a new word. A new tool. Any news of their misdeeds, or embarrassment in the case of the inauguration turnout, can be chalked up as fake news. CNN ran a story with loose facts last month and now Trump has labeled them as a fake news source. He’s discredited CNN to his entire voter base.
To what extent is the president willing to go in order to push his personal narrative? We learned about “alternative facts” when the Whitehouse issued an official statement rejecting the reported turnout for the inauguration. It may seem like something to laugh at right now because the inauguration turnout is unimportant and inconsequential to the well-being of the country. But later on down the line, when his administration is wrapped up in an inevitable scandal, will we be so tickled about their alternative facts? I suspect not.
I think the heinousness of the gag orders is pretty self-explanatory. One part of the government is attempting to dictate what another part is and is not allowed to speak of. The EPA is a science-driven agency by nature. They need to be able to talk about science. The administration is literally trying to dictate what scientific information available to us. Another example of this attempt is their proposal to defund NPR and PBS. Both are public media outlets meant to educate and connect people. Remember the old saying; “Knowledge is power.” Therefore, in my opinion, if one seeks to limit the knowledge of the people, they’re ultimately seeking to limit the power of the people.
What about that infotomic bomb I mentioned? Well, unfortunately, he already used that weapon once. The Trump campaign used a psychometrics contractor. To give you an example of the effectiveness of this strategy, the same contractor was used by the Brexit campaign and, before Trump, Ted Cruz’s winning Iowa primary campaign. Brexit happened despite being quite controversial and unpopular.
Many of us are familiar with psychometrics in one form or another. It’s akin the algorithms advertising venues use to tailor their ads to individual people. A lot of people are familiar with and are even ok with that. What’s so bad about seeing ads for products that are specifically relevant to me? Well, Cambridge Analytica has translated that idea to political campaigns, and they’re using new methods to take it to a whole new level. These methods weren’t even around for the 2012 election. That’s how new they are, and that’s why we haven’t seen them used before. The gist of it is this: using publicly available information and purchasable information about an individual, key aspects of their personality can quickly be identified and used to develop a specifically tailored political ad that will hit ‘em straight in the psyche.
Publicly available information is things like how many Facebook profile pictures you have and word frequency analyses of your public posts and comments. Purchased information comes from many sources. Any time you don’t opt out of data sharing agreements, all data they can record about you is kept in a database and potentially sold. Discount cards for retailers are a massive data grab. Another big data grab is those personality quizzes or the Facebook apps that tell you what Harry Potter character you are based on scanning your Facebook. Every time you participate in those things, seemingly inconsequential information is being stored.
But with psychometrics, that seemingly inconsequential information is used to work up a psychological profile. An excerpt from an eye-opening article about this subject: “In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook "likes" by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation with the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn't stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data, it was even possible to deduce whether someone's parents were divorced.” The is how sensitive this information can be when combined. Using these profiles, the campaign was able to create hundreds of thousands of unique ads to dish out over the internet, each one specifically tailored to the issues that it’s recipient holds dearly, such as gun control or abortion rights.
The way I see it, the reason this worked out so well for the Trump campaign is that he didn’t just advertise to his constituents. He reached into their individual souls and touched on their most sensitive political hot button topics. They didn’t enthusiastically show up to the polls in solidarity behind the perfect group of values in Trump. They all showed up with differently prioritized values, each one thinking that at the core of the entire campaign was an emphasis on their specific values. Hard to beat that kind of enthusiasm.
Information is a tool. And tools can be used as a weapon. We could debate whether the use of psychometrics was that of a tool or that of a weapon. But in either case, I don’t know that many people would be comfortable with being manipulated in such a way, even if it’s by someone they support. My other examples (information suppression and false information) are definitely info-weapons that we should be wary of in our day to day observations of this administration, and interactions with each other. Combine them all and you have the nasty result of losing legitimate information while being spoon fed propaganda that isn’t just upsetting but emotionally charging to your specific psyche.
There are two avenues for avoiding this infowar that come to my mind. One is to pressure reliable news outlets to only deliver important, unbiased information without dramatizing. The other is to focus on ideas when discussing politics and current events. We can sit here and try to discredit each other day in and day out using the mountains of information (real or fake) readily available to us, or we can talk about the ideas and philosophies that drive us and work on solutions that satisfy the unifying needs of we the people.