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.


Review of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each OtherAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does it mean when we live in a world where robots are beginning to care for the elderly or children? What does it mean when children look at a Galapagos tortoise in a zoo and say that a robot would be “alive enough” to do what it is doing. How do we engage with the world around us when we have the potential for 24/7 network access? What does the blending of the physical and virtual worlds mean for our psyches and identities?

Thirty years of research on how computers and technology affect how we think and think about ourselves is compellingly covered in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Our Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle balances down-to-earth examples of her daughter’s use of technology with a wide body of psychological research on adults and children’s interactions with computers and technological gadgets. Her’s is a measured and helpful voice within the group of writers exploring cultural change due to technology; neither blindly condemning it, nor uncritically trumpeting the wonders of new applications.

Centered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she is steeped in cutting edge technologies and innovation. She applies her knowledge as a psychoanalytically-trained psychologist to ask reflective questions about how the computer is changing us. She says that this book is a culmination of two previous books on the effect of computers on the mind. Second Self was published in the 1984 and centered on how one on one interaction with a computer re-shaped our thinking. Later, her 1995 book Life on the Screen, explored the emerging Internet and how the ability to connect through computers changes us. This book is a combination of these issues with the addition of the possibilities and pressures of mobile and personal devices.

Some stories she shares are lightly amusing like some of the students she interviewed about Facebook shared with her their exhaustion with the demand on their time to maintain their social “face” saying, “How long do I have to keep this up?”. Others are more troubling and really challenge how we think about relationships with our technology including humans who prefer the company of robots or their smart phones over members of their own family.

Whether you are curious about the social and psychological effect of Facebook and the Internet or are curious about more advanced robotic technology and artificial intelligence this book will challenge you to think about how technology impacts you, your family, and the world around you in a new and deeper way.

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Michael Wesch and Digital Ethnography

Michael Wesch is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and he is doing some innovative and significant work on the impact of digital media. Many people probably had their first exposure to him through the YouTube sensation The Machine is Us/ing Us that beautifully illustrates what Web 2.0 is and its implications. The last portion of the video poses that scenario that we need to rethink some things. Two particular aspects of change for this post are scholarly communication and pedagogy.

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Social Networking in Education

The speaker, Andy Carvin, is the Senior social media person at NPR. He spoke at Computers in Libraries in 2006 and it will be interesting to see what is different.

Establishing what social media is

Interactive Web – well established. He says 1.0, non-interactive, is almost gone, especially in professional space.

Three types of Networks

  • personas
    • Facebook
    • MySpace
  • discusssions
    • Facebook Groups – I Heart NPR
  • blogs
    • Facebook “news feeds”
    • Flickr
    • YouTube


He featured Facebook

There is already a group of users that may be creating a group about your organization.

NPR fans created one before NPR did.


Facebook’s news feed is roughly a blog

Some people use social networks as their blog platform – http://www.digitaldivide.net/blog/acarvin

Explained RSS for those not familiar- allows for content to be disaggregated and sent all throughout the web. DDN subscribes to Andy’s blog.

Great history of Social Networks! They have been around, especially in education, since the 1970’s

Recent developments – Friendster (2002), MySpace(2003), Facebook(2004), Bebo(2005)

But – USENET has been around since the 1970’s as a text-only, topic-centered discussion board.  Teachers were using it to have discussions outside of class. (list names in the U’s)

Email Discussion Lists

Listserv is a software created in 1986 that automates email discussion. (Kleenex effect)

Good examples


  • students around the World that discuss global policy
  • have a relationship with the UN

Tapped In

  • text based platform like Second Life
  • One professor created a space that was so well done that it was accepted for CEU’s

New Tools

  • YouTube 101
  • TeachJeffSpanish.com
  • Facebook Apps
  • Facebook Groups
  • Twitter
  • Ning
    • specific closed online networks

On his comfort level with the technologies based on his age:

“Between being digital native and an immigrant, I was born on the boat coming over”