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How another of my favourite moral panics turned out to be a damp squib
These mea culpas are getting to be a habit
An unanticipated theme in Rarely Certain has emerged, which is around suggesting that various things aren't as bad as popular rhetoric would have you believe.
Neither the leftish's hysterical identification of a creeping and all-encompassing white supremacy culture nor the right's baleful, tragic and portentous visions of everything always on the brink of collapse seem to be based in fact.
Both strands of thought seem rooted more in neurosis, mimetic performance and entertainment than the actual world. Asnoted recently, it's all mostly a game in which we are all NPCs (non-player characters).
Since outrage, fear and loathing tend to fly so well in the discourse, it's probably counterproductive in terms of earning subscriptions to keep saying calm down everyone but here's the latest pitcher of disappointing cold water poured onto a onetime hot topic anyway.
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Three factors led to this economically unwise but honest position.
Noticing the contagious hysteria of Twitter. Where even the tiniest, least significant event was greeted with wild emoting, to be pored over, analysed and deconstructed for the purpose of reconstructing it as deeply significant. Brexit and Trump Twitter were the worst. Like when the president of Britain’s supreme court wore a certain brooch. Or the Queen wore a certain hat. To be on Twitter was to experience a permanent state of agitation. And - as someone dispositionally high in neuroticism anyway - it was a genuine relief to burn it all down.
Mindfulness & seemingly receding emotionality. Having tested for years as INFP I've been surprised lately to consistently test as INTJ. I was so surprised I tested twice, ending up with the same result, using different schemas. Then I tested a third time, with P present to consult with on every answer. Had I just wanted to see myself as defaulting more to thought than feeling these days? No. Still INTJ. Even she was surprised.
My suspicion is that this could possibly be the result of several years of mindfulness practice. How I'm thinking this manifests is in a different reaction when exposed to others' agitation. Whereas I was once highly susceptible to the contagious energy of others' emotions perhapss I am less so today. Which may account for why I pour cold water on things many people freak out about (see here and here for examples).
Becoming more roundly informed. There's nothing like widening your information sources for disrupting the idea that you broadly understood everything that was going on when you first formed your views. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is discovering that you didn't even know the half of what was actually happening when you relied on media governed by a specific editorial policy.
I now believe that the most pernicious form of media bias isn't an overt leaning in interpretation, but the intentional exclusion of salient information. This recent piece links most of Rarely Certain's thoughts to date on the theme of media effects on understanding the world.
In this context I'll sometimes look back at times when I was extremely agitated about events and see much less to worry about than I did.
Now it's happened again, over something that bothered me a great deal at one time.
I was deeply embedded in the outraged classes when it was on-trend to complain about micro-targeting for political ads.
It's funny how my interest in this field only began when I found myself on the losing side of the Brexit vote, but that shock set me up perfectly to then participate in the moral panic over Trump.
It's remarkable how me and my cohort of centre-leftish/liberal types thought that only the stupid people who were voting for things we didn't want were influenced by advertising.
I do recall flickers of cognitive dissonance when it was pointed out by exasperated conservatives that the 2012 Obama campaign had amped its vote in this way in the so-called 'Facebook Election'.
But that was fine because suave sophisticated Barack was our kind of guy and four years later we were talking about Brexit & Trump. So, suddenly it was definitely not ok to personalise political ads on social media.
Today I wonder what the problem really is. Apart from the fact that it tends to be the most simplistic talking points that fly best. But that's hardly a moral consideration - that the 'other side' has more galvanising messages.
So what, if AggregateIQ won Brexit for Dominic Cummings (and that's never really been established as fact anyway). No one was stopping Remain from doing it. All that was really going on when people moaned about this was a desire to prevail, without the appetite or imagination to hone in on the real problem. Which is that most of us don't think very deeply about the messages that appeal to us and don't really understand what we're voting for.
Obviously we rarely admit that we're mostly vibe-driven and lean toward positions for reasons of personal temperament or identity (for example, I was always aware that people like me were pro-Remain) because that spoils the story we want to believe; that we're rational thinkers who can discern the answers to complex questions by dint of our intelligence.
If it's intelligence that makes us favour high immigration and supranational moral, legal and regulatory mechanisms then the people who don't like those things must just be less intelligent. And therefore vulnerable to manipulation.
So when Carole Cadwalladr wrote her prize-winning investigations into how personal data were being used to subvert democracy I was totally in. Cambridge Analytica became an exciting bogeyman and I was one of many who were obsessed with 'dark money', 'psy-ops' and 'information warfare'.
I even made a Subject Access Request to SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica's parent company) to see what data they held on me. Which turned out to be none.
But our hand-wringing about how your every move is tracked and that this means lots of people being so well understood by nefarious actors that they can be easily manipulated knew no bounds.
Along with Russian interference (paywall now removed), personal data-based ad targeting were the go-to ways people like me rationalised the fact that large numbers of people were sceptical about the project of ever greater (neo)liberalisation and voted to curtail it the first moment they were offered a choice.
Since those times various features have appeared, putting the original hyperbolic claims about micro-targeting and manipulation into a more sober perspective. But I never saw any of that going viral. This is because no one ever gets really worked up over information and analysis suggesting something isn't really that bad. Articles that paint a perfect caricature of our fears regarding big data in politics are always where it's at, when it comes to clicks and shares.
In passing, that excellent piece is from a Canadian title that has a land acknowledgement on its website, suggesting that you can be performatively Woke while still producing damned good, thoughtful reporting. There's a lesson there in not reflexively dismissing an information source just because you don't like its overall political vibe.
It's interesting that the hysteria stoked around Cambridge Analytica - which was really just another grubby political consultancy with a scintillating sales pitch - ended up embedded in the thinking of Europe's leadership, so that you find these lines repeated with a figuratively straight face in a serious strategy document.
"What the Cambridge Analytica Affair reveals about tomorrow’s persuasion tactics
“The recent so-called Cambridge Analytica case reveals […] that tomorrow’s persuasion tactics could be nothing like the old strategies of spreading rumors, and more like the targeting of each individual voter. Indeed, this new method consists of ‘using data to change behavior,’ or in other words acquiring such a deep understanding of each citizen by combining a multitude of information on his behavior, personal ties, habits, desires, fears, etc., that the computer will be able to incite them to vote or to buy that which perfectly matches their needs."
(François-Bernard Huyghes, “Que changent les fake news?” La Revue internationale et stratégique, 110, 2018/2, p. 83-84.)"
We know that Facebook admits that it has been used to incite ethnic violence in places like Myanmar and that certain messages pumped into unhappy eyeballs sometimes have bad real world consequences. We also know that Cambridge Analytica accessed data on things that British and American Facebook users had liked or listed as interests and who they were 'friends' with on there. But to this day no one has been able to evidence the claim that voters were consequently influenced.
It reminds me of digital advertising in general as something that generally doesn't work but feels sinister because influential people are always banging on about it. And it has a really cool name now.
So we ended up highly receptive to ideas such as Trump knows you better than you know yourself thanks to something something data something something psychometric something other fancy-sounding-words without ever finding out whether he really did.
The marketing world (and this is all we're talking about really) has one job, which is to persuade clients that it knows how to make people do things and it is very good at that, without even really needing to make people do anything at scale. The fear that it can make people think and do things of which you don't approve (while somehow never influencing you) is seductive as a story because it invokes a vague, shadowy peril and offers yet another excuse for not engaging with why other people voted differently than you did.
In this way moral panics seem to me like heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) offering the bonus value of bringing like-minded people together for a kind of social ritual lamentation. That's how I personally experienced the Cambridge Analytica saga. I was able to gen up on the basic jargon and gain thousands of Twitter followers from making other people worried too. And it was noticeable how the awful vision of slavishly Pavlovian responses among the out-group was never questioned.
But you only have to look at how inconclusive the research designed to surface real world behaviour really is (many studies referenced in this helpful paper) to suspect that fears are largely overblown.
An interesting feature of this particular moral panic is how it didn't die away with the revelations that Cambridge Analytica really wasn't all that, when it came to svengali-like voter manipulation. Most of the more sceptical voices commenting on micro-targeting are buried under the weight of Google's insistence on surfacing the more exciting articles and opinions.
(In passing, Google now seems to me to be the ultimate instrumentation of publication bias, seeming with each passing day to be less useful for understanding the world in the round. More of a narrative control engine than anything else.)
You'll still often hear people talk about how sophisticated micro-targeting is. You were looking at garden sheds and then your friend starts seeing adverts for garden sheds and you default to thinking that your phone is listening to your conversations. When all that's generally happening is that some algorithm somewhere spotted you searching for garden sheds and noticed that another phone was nearby, which often communicates with yours, and told the hapless garden shed supplier that garden sheds have high salience to your friend too.
Then you buy a garden shed and the same supplier just keeps advertising garden sheds at you.
That's how sophisticated this stuff really is.
But, with garden sheds it's just annoying. With Brexit and Trump it feels existential (depending on where you stood on those mostly wrong answers to the wrong questions) and that's where moral panic gets its oxygen.
So, from feeling terribly agitated a few years ago about all this I now recognise that reality is a lot less exciting, let alone 'community-building'. It’s kind of lonely to care less.
Perhaps something is lost, in letting go of this story. It was exciting to feel imperilled and outraged. And that's mostly why I think I was perversely happy about it at the time.
Buy me one beer a month?