It is one of life’s great ironies. A person with a certain trait will unwittingly look for – or see – that trait in other people before any other trait. For example, take the situation when you don’t know where your phone is. Someone who is prone to stealing will immediately jump to the conclusion that your phone has been stolen. Someone who is forgetful will think that you have misplaced it. Someone who is clumsy will assume you have dropped and broken it. Someone who has anger management issues will make the assumption that you were angry when you were speaking with someone and threw it off a bridge! You get the idea. I am sure there is some sexy scientific name for it – maybe Cognitive Confirmation Bias or something similar. I am sure someone has filled in a government grant application to do further research on a condition like this and given it a groovy name.
I talk about this because I thought it was incredibly ironic that Donald Trump has been throwing around the term ‘fake news’ since the day he won the Presidential race when it now appears that he won that race by utilising ‘fake news’.
I had never heard the term ‘fake news’ until I read one of Donald’s rants and then I made a mistake. I assumed that Donald meant any report or news article that was in some way critical or not in agreeance with him was ‘fake news’. In other words, if you don’t agree with me, you must be making it up! It seemed to me that it was his way of discrediting people who didn’t agree with him. That was my mistake. Donald knew exactly what ‘fake news’ meant because he had so successfully used a process of creating information to his advantage during the election campaign. He had effectively made up the term.
I am referring, of course, to the current situation with Cambridge Analytica and what I think is just the tip of the iceberg of the transgressions this firm – and possibly others – have made. To cut through all the complicated explanations of why a British Parliamentary committee has summoned Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to appear before him, it goes something like this.
Over 2.2 billion people across the world place a huge amount of information about themselves on Facebook. We do so after having put our trust in the organisation to follow rules and procedures – both stated and morally implied – about how they will retain and keep that information safe. One organisation that we know of so far came up with a very clever way to utilise this information to create very sophisticated personality profiles on over 50 million users. Ignore the morality and criminality of the issue for a moment and admire the ingenuity of what this company did. Through a series of complicated algorithms, they were able to build incredibly accurate and specific profiles of each and every one of those users. Then they simply fed information to those users they knew would appeal to that individual. So forget about a political ad that is run in a newspaper for everyone to see. These ads would run in your news feed on Facebook that would be detailed and specific to what would appeal to you – and just you. Take an over-simplified example. If your profile showed that you were a single mother with young children at pre-school and had a low income, your news feed might show an article that said that Donald Trump supported lowering fees on pre-schools but Hilary Clinton wanted to raise the fees. Straight away you want to support Trump because electing Hilary will have a direct impact on your personal life. If your profile shows you use an Apple iPhone, you might receive an article that talks about Trump wanting to increase production of American made devices – such as phones – and increase tariffs on imports from international companies like Samsung. You think this sounds like a good idea. By the time you find out that some of this news is not real, you have already made up your mind that you want to support Trump and you are less likely to believe alternative views.
Very clever, ingenious, but immoral and a complete breach of trust in what the public expects from organisations we deal with. Mark Zuckerberg has already announced that Facebook is making changes but expect this issue to have huge ramifications for the future of online organisations. We are starting to see these changes already.