Monday, November 28, 2016

Depersonalized personalization (or is it personalized depersonalization?)

I keep hearing about "the Trump voter" or "Trump voters" as if these theoretical entities are a source of valid generalizations or conclusions about our changing world. Certainly they're components of the media's narratives about the election. Yesterday Tom read out a passage from a book he's been reading, Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatening Democracy that brought home to me just how naive and simplistic the media's narratives about the election really are. This is a book that considers a variety of ways that mass data and algorithms are getting it wrong and continually screwing things up for the individuals who are the sources of the data that's being mined. (Counterintuitive, some people would say, since for years people thought that supplying companies and institutions with data about ourselves was harmless and often a means for avoiding paywalls.) In a chapter titled "The Targeted Citizen," discussing "microtargetting," which produces customized ads and news, she notes:
Successful microtargeting, in part, explains why in 2015 more than 43 percent of Republicans, according to a survey, still believed the lie that President Obama is a Muslim. And 20 percent of Americans believe he was born outside the United States and, consequently, an illegitimate president. (Democrats may well spread their own disinformation in microtargeting, but nothing that has surfaced matches the scale of the anti-Obama campaign.)
Conventional political campaigns still direct the majority of their media buy to television ads, which have a more equalizing effect, but even television advertising is becoming personalized. It may be worth noting that much was made, during the campaign, of the Clinton campaign's reliance on television and Trump's preferred use of the Internet, the medium par excellence for microtargeting. If you want to say different things to different people, especially if you want to propagate "fake news" designed to appeal to particular mindsets, obviously Internet advertising and messaging works more effectively than television ads do. O'Neil predicts that
It will become harder to access the political messages our neighbors are seeing--and as a result, to understand why they believe what they do, often passionately. Even a nosy journalist will struggle to track down the messaging. It is not enough simply to visit the candidate's web page, because they, too, automatically profile and target each visitor, weighing everything from their zip codes to the links they click on the page, even the photos they appear to look at. It's also fruitless to create dozens of "fake" profiles, because the systems associate each real voter with deep accumulated knowledge, including purchasing records, addresses, phone numbers, voting records, and even social security numbers and Facebook profiles. To convince the system it's real, each fake would have to come with its own load of data. Fabricating one would require far too much work for a research project (and in the worst-case scenario it might get the invetigator tangled up in fraud).

...The political marketers maintain deep dossiers on us, feed us a trickle of information, and measure how we respond to it. But we're kept in the dark about what our neighbors are being fed. This resembles a common tactic used by business negotiators. They deal with different parties separately so that none of them knows what the other is hearing. This asymmetry of information prevents the various parties from joining forces--which is precisely the point of a democratic government.
So what does the media come up with to "explain" the disconnect between coastal "elites" (as if--yet another imaginary entity) and "the Trump voter"? A bubble that people on the coasts live in! Is this naivete--ignorance of the effects of microtargeting--or deliberate obfuscation? For rank and file workers in the media, likely the former. But I bet the ones devising the microtargeting split their sides every time they hear about "the bubble."

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I don't think the Trump voters are all one thing, but one element that doesn't get mentioned is the love of people who consider the world to be unfairly stacked against them to love a con man who made his cons work for him. A friend lives in Floyd, Virginia, and the alternatives who voted against Clinton were not uncommon. And one of them was what I consider a con man -- an astrologer. He says astrology just works. I'm sure it just works for him, but I was a very cynical reader for Doubleday's Occult Book Club and I think most people believe in what pays their rent. The reports I'd heard from people who had readings were that the astrologers fed people what they wanted to hear. Trump doesn't deny many of his cons, from not actually getting an MBA from Wharton to cheating the students of Trump University. A lot of Americans would do what Trump has done if they believed they could get away with it. And there's always been a con man strain in US politics.