Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised by the Cambridge Analytica Facebook Issue

One of the chilling aspects of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook relationship is how they used sophisticated psychological profiles based on personal data to market and influence individuals during the presidential election. While the level of detail and manipulation of personal data is shocking this methodology is not new. Advertisers and groups seeking wide societal influence in modern times have used targeted profiling and data to focus their efforts and gain influence since the 1950’s.

Rites of Men coverReading this passage, written in 1999, in Varda Burstyn’s Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport about how advertising and spectacle sports became more deeply intertwined reminded me of the issues at the heart of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica story:

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, advertising relied on demographic measurement to help design effective campaigns. In the early 1970s, the industry took a major step forward in enhancing the power of their appeals by introducing a technique called ‘psychodemographics.’ A product of the impact of psychology and neurology on the advertising industry, psychodemographics could evaluate the effects of a given visual-auditory messages on the feelings and behaviors of demographically grouped viewers, and then aid in producing tailor-made advertisements to stimulate particular responses.

Burstyn goes on to quote Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987, 74):

According to the new model of communications that emerged the human receiver is by no means an empty vessel waiting to be filled with a potent message. Rather, the human receiver is a bundle of needs (many of them unconscious or below the threshold of awareness) and a compendium of emotional experiences (many of which are common to all of us as members of this society)…the receiver is a highly involved participant in the communication. The goal is to shape the message so that it matches the unconscious needs, emotional experience, and coded expectations of the desired audience – so that it speaks to, or resonates with, their deepest feelings and beliefs. This isn’t putting something into the receivers, it’s drawing something out of them and attaching it, or labeling that emotion with the product being advertised.

Watchers of Mad Men, the series about the advertising business in 1960’s New York, may recognize some of these ideas in the market research scenes.

Facebook reactions for like button

When Facebook added Reactions to the Like button in February 2016 users now had the ability to literally label items with six different emotions,  deepening their psychoprofiles along with any personality quizzes they may have participated in. Some anticipated that this feature had a purpose beyond broadening user expression which eventually came to light as Cambridge Analytica utilized that data to influence people in ways that Nelson describes in ways that one could refer to as mind control.  Some of my colleagues at Bethel in Political Science, Computer Science, and Neuroscience discuss this in a podcast last May called Social Media and Mind Control.

Keeping in mind what is new about this situation and what is a progression of an established practice help to frame our responses. For instance, the Congressional hearings about this with Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, may have gone better if the Senators were more informed about this advertising practice and what is unique about Facebook’s technology and data practices.

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Review of Mary Aiken’s Cyber Effect

The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes OnlineThe Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online by Mary Aiken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For anyone who is a parent or spends significant time online this is an important and terrifying book. Dr. Aiken is a psychologist who specializes in forensics and public policy regarding the Internet, particularly in the international context with INTERPOL. She is also a consultant for the television show CSI:Cyber and has a position to influence public knowledge of these concepts through that medium as well. With this focus, she understandably comes into contact with the worst corners of the Internet. She begins the book by establishing a foundation of how human behavior changes online such as: increased inhibition and the ability to amplify and spread behaviors more quickly. She goes on to survey a wide swath of Internet activity from gaming, online dating, social media, black markets, predatory behavior, hacking and fringe communities finding each other on the Internet.

As a librarian that stands for a healthy exchange of ideas in society, her advocacy for limitations on the Internet and mentioning China as a model for segmenting the Internet from its citizens is a bit unsettling. However, she does mention the importance of a balance between regulation and the protection of personal privacy. The free exchange of ideas is one that she sees more as a risk and danger rather than a social good. There is a whole aspect of hacker culture and ethics that she misses because of her focus on criminal and malicious hacking activity. Because she is grounded in cybersecurity and forensics and librarianship is grounded in providing access and information to all, there is an understandable tension between our philosophical and professional perspectives.

With that said, there are some truly nasty and disgusting corners of the Web that I wouldn’t want to go and certainly wouldn’t want my children coming into contact with. As a parent it is important that I train my kids to learn how to navigate the Web and be aware of the dangers as well and blocking off access for their benefit. Her portrayal of child predator behavior online is worth the price of the book alone as a parent. Also, her attempts to get countries to cooperate with each other on legal jurisdiction to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation are good to read about. There are also technological measures that can be taken and her algorithm to detect cyber-bullying on social media is a promising aspect of using technology in a positive way.

I recommend this book with the qualification that it be read alongside a book that takes a deeper and philosophical approach like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Turkle’s book fills the gaps in research that Aiken doesn’t cover and does a better job of balancing the positive and negative aspects of technology. Turkle has also done decades of research on the aspects of how behavior changes online. Aiken, pulls work like Turkle’s into the broader world of security and public policy. Parents and professionals will have a more complete view of this topic if this book is not the only one that is read about the impact of the Internet and online behavior.

View all my reviews

Found and Not Found: Scholarly Literature on the Web

Spurred by a recent New Yorker article about the birth and necessity of the Internet Archive, and how it helped identify who might have shot down the civilian plane in Ukraine, I looked into Jill Lepore’s sources to learn more.

She references a December 26, 2014 and a May 9, 2014 article in the open access journal PLOS ONE that are significantly related to information literacy and scholarship on the Web.  I would be curious to hear your responses.

1. Not Found

Lepore mentions “reference rot” and an article that found that 1 in 5 links used as citations in scholarly literature no longer work.  The research was conducted by library researchers who analyzed Science, Technology, and Medicine journals between 1997 – 2012. This is certainly an important point for us to note and help our students and faculty choose wisely.

2. Found

Another set of researchers attempted to identify how many pieces of scholarly literature were freely available on the Web.  Of the 114 million English-language articles they found, 24% or 27 million were freely available.
I wonder how these two impact our services and how they contribute to and inform the perception that “everything is available online” in the domain of scholarly literature.  I can’t help but notice that the open access nature of the articles in PLOSOne helped update and enrich the information in this more “popular” magazine with scholarly information.

Copyright in Space with Commander Hadfield and David Bowie

Space Oddity Hadfield Screen shot

David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station

On May 13, 2014, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield announced on Twitter that his version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity performed on the International Space Station would be taken down from YouTube after his one year term of permission was over:

Bowie's last day - we had permission for a year, so our Space Oddity video comes down today. One last look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo …

This led to an outcry from the general public who viewed the video over 22 million times during the year it was available including appeals to David Bowie to keep the video up.

Ownership of the Song Rights

The irony here is that the publishers Essex Music International, Inc. / Onward Music, Ltd. managed by Bucks Music Group, not David Bowie, own the rights to give permission to his song. Bowie was publicly criticized by many when he was actually supportive of the video and encouraged the publishers to allow Hadfield to use it for free for one year. Other versions of the video are still available on YouTube through SkyNews and many others who downloaded a copy.

International Space Copyright Concerns

An article in the Economist explains the fascinating copyright implications because it was in space, was international, and articulates some of the complications between creators, rights owners, and jurisdiction (the location of responsibility where legal cases are heard and decided).
Hadfield did a great deal of planning for the video and contacted David Bowie for permission. He also contributed some creative elements to the song including modified lyrics, background noise from the space station, and of course the stunning video footage from the Space Station.

The continuing development of this case study promises many more interesting discussions about the roles copyright and fair use in our culture. It can be argued that Hadfield’s video increased the awareness of the original work considerably and also rekindled the public’s interest in the International Space Station.

Correction (July 28, 2014):  A representative of Fairwood Music International notified me that they are not the music publisher and rights holder of Space Oddity and I’ve updated the post to reflect the correct copyright holder: Essex Music International, Onward Music/Essex Retentions c/o Bucks Music Ltd., Essex Music International Inc., Onward Music/Essex Retentions c/o Bucks Music. Fairwood does publish many other David Bowie recordings, like Ziggy Stardust, Let’s Dance, and Fame, but does not manage Space Oddity.

Digital Humanities and Undergraduate Education by Rebecca Frost Davis

I explained Digital Humanities in the Liberal Arts as best I understand it in a previous post. Now let me introduce you to someone who is an expert in this topic. Rebecca Frost Davis at St. Edwards University in Texas and was a NITLE fellow on Digital Humanities and introduces the state of Digital Humanities in small liberal arts colleges and how to become involved.

Here is what she has to say: