The Corruption of Social Media

J. Edgar Hoover was Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from May of 1924 to May of 1972 – a period of forty-eight years. One of the reasons for his longevity was that Mr. Hoover had the agency build dossiers on virtually every person of power – particularly presidents and members of Congress. He was fond of reminding those with whom he dealt that he did know their secrets: “Yes, Congressman, thank you for taking my call. I have your file right here on my desk. What seems to be the problem. . .” (James Comey is not the first FBI director to preside over a corrupt agency and he won’t be the last – it is the nature of power left unchecked.) Mr. Hoover would send out his sycophants to bully politicians. The Daily Beast reviewing Ronald Kessler’s The Secrets of the FBI in August of 2011 and updated in July of 2017 noted:

“’The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,’ said William Sullivan, who became the number three official in the bureau under Hoover, ‘he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. But we wanted you to know this. We realize you’d want to know it.’ Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.’”

That power, magnified by one hundred fold, now resides in a handful of multi-billionaires in the “high-tech” community – Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. And like corruption in the FBI what started out as a societal benefit was corrupted as the power of computers attached to the internet grew.
Google is the premier internet search engine allowing the public access to information on virtually any subject. But Google doesn’t make its money by providing a search engine. It makes its money by accumulating data on users that it, in turn, uses for advertising and marketing for itself and other customers. So powerful is Google the even other search engines actually use Google instead of developing a competing search engine. Among those using Google are Bing (Microsoft), FireFox (Modzilla), and Yahoo (Verizon). So dominant is Google that over ninety percent of internet searches pass through its computers. And as those searches pass through those computers Google extracts and stores the data contained in the searches including the information requested, the information provided, and MOST IMPORTANTLY the identification of the requesting party through what is known as an IP address. Add to that that Google is the largest provider of email services in the United States. What data Google does not gather through these processes is available for purchase from others. Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter all do the same. Your smartphone acts as a GPS unit and records all of your movements, and Amazon’s Alexa (and similar devices by Google, Apple and Microsoft) have the capability of listening to all of your private conversations and mine additional data from them.
Data extracted never disappears. It is in their vast data storage facilities. That is critically important because of what comes next.
Each of these companies deploy armies of mathematicians, software engineers, programmers and code writers to create complex algorithms permitting these companies to build “profiles” of users. Initially these profiles were used to target prospective purchasers for advertising purposes but they have gone way beyond that – dangerously beyond that.
These profiles are so complete that there are no longer personal secrets. There are currently websites available that permit a user to “investigate” virtually anybody. The services provide a screening of all public available records and provide the user with a “profile” of the victim including births, deaths, residences, credit data, marriages, divorces, criminal records (including arrests without regard to convictions), military service, and much more. However, these type of “profiles” are neophytic compared to the profiles created by these internet bullies. Because, while the algorithms can produce a marketing profile, they can also produce an economic profile, a travel profile, an entertainment profile, a medical profile, a pictorial profile, a sexual profile, a political profile, an attitudinal profile, and everything in between or yet to be created. The algorithms strip you bare and leave you subject to a profile that is created that may or may not reflect you as a real person.
But it doesn’t end with the information you unwittingly provided them. They use these same algorithms to “push” you into other actions. For years politicians have used polling to determine public sentiment and position themselves for elections. A more pernicious form of polling has become more prevalent -–push polling. Push polling is used to change the polled person’s position. Initially the questions might ask whether you support Joe Blow. If you do, you are then asked a series of follow-up questions that suggest something inappropriate about Mr. Blow: If you knew that Joe Blow does not donate to charities would you still favor him? If you knew that Joe Blow hasn’t spoken to his mother for five years, would you still favor him? If you knew that Joe Blow was caring on an affair with a married woman, would you still favor him? By the time the “follow up questions are completed you have a completely different picture of Mr. Blow: he’s cheap, he ignores his mother, and he is a womanizer. (Never mind that, in fact, Mr. Blow is a welfare recipient who has no discretionary money, that his mother has been dead for a decade or the woman with whom he is having the affair is his wife of twenty years.) The object is not to inform but rather to “push” a different preference.
There is an excellent program on Netflix entitled The Social Dilemma that details the means by which these internet Goliaths manipulate their subjects. First, you understand that they get paid by providing clients with a group of individuals that meet certain profile criteria – and I mean they get paid on a per individual provided. If the group of individuals supplied is insufficiently large to generate the expected revenue, they go to work to increase the “base” of that group by “pushing” users into tagging the desired element to include them in the “base.” As an example let us suppose that the “group” sought by a client requires the individuals to be Asian, between the ages of 22 and 30, female, single, a member of a health club, a purchaser of organic and natural foods, a user of Netflix movies, and a chocoholic. The provider can determine that the number of individuals meeting all of those criteria is insufficient to meet their desired income goals but that the number of individuals meeting all of the criteria except “chocoholic” is so large that it provides a base from which they can move some members into the “chocoholic” group and thus create a large group for the client. The provider, in essence, floods the individuals in the larger group with information that promotes the taste, health benefits, societal approval, romantic connections, etc. until they “push” members in the larger group to now use chocolate. And the sad par is that it not only works, but the individuals are mostly unaware they have been manipulated – its all done with algorithms and a push of a button.
Now combine the concepts of push polling for political purposes with the manipulation of algorithms and you have the modern day capacities of these social media giants. And the best evidence that these social media giants are, in fact, using their enormous array of algorithms and vast electronic data storage to manipulate is found in a very simple experiment. Find a person whose political views are diametrically opposite of yours, agree on a political subject and Google that subject. (You will each have to use your own computer, tablet or smartphone because your data profile is tied to your IP address.)  You will get two entirely different results – ones that either agree with your perceived political bias, or more probably ones that agree with one person’s perceived political bias, and the other with a series of results designed to push the one towards the other persons political bias. It is frightening to know that your request for political information rests in the hands of people who demonstrably manipulate the search responses.
The Wall Street Journal carried an article Tuesday morning that described a series of anti-trust lawsuits against these social media giants being prepared by Department of Justice and/or a number of state’s attorney generals. Will they find anti-competitive behavior? Of course, that is the nature of monopolies. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that these social media giants now possess private information that permits them to manipulate markets, spy on people, intimidate politicians and propagandize political issues. Not only can they do it, but when it comes to political discourse, they can do it to the exclusion of virtually everyone else.
The new group of J. Edgar Hoovers is even more dangerous because they are not subject to voter sentiment – they determine voter sentiment.
Drastic action needs to be taken to separate the collection of data and the use of that data with the former being determined to be a “utility function” and available on a non-discriminatory basis to all, while the latter is determined to be “free market” function and subject to the mercies of competition. (There will have to be an interlude on the marketing function to ensure that the sheer size of these behemoths do not give them an undue market advantage.)
But given that these decisions are left to members of Congress – most of whom cannot plug in a computer let alone understand the nature of data bits, algorithms, and cloud storage – don’t hold you breath that anything good will come of their efforts.