The New York Times columnist Russell Baker framed up the general principle perfectly: “A great salesman never asks you what you want.” he wrote. “He tells you what he’s got, and why you want it.”
“Television,” Baker continued, “is pre-eminently a sales medium.”
In my little news nook of the television business, Baker’s meaning was clear.
When I started in news in the mid-60s, the news division was its own little nonprofit satellite of TV’s profit-making planet. Back then, our job was to inform, not sell, and news executives talked about serving public needs. But by the mid-70s, that line had changed: news executives, like all other television executives, were focused on ratings, not content. They justified this change by talking about giving the public what they claimed it wanted.
The short-form translation: Program for profit.
Mass marketing of news meant modifying the product — to make it “easier.” Stories were simplified; the number of specific details was reduced. The rising “story count” of shortened reports, and the restructuring of analysis into responsive shouting further undermined the quality of information citizens had, and not coincidentally, diminished viewers’ respect for the news media.
The more TV news betrayed its own standards, the more it laid track for today’s dangerous world of carefully targeted fake news. The industry wide crapification of news was generic and broad-scale, it targeted everyone who watched television. Today’s technologies of data-mining and personal digital devices have changed that. Now the liars and hucksters refine their messages precisely for you.
The digitally enhanced targeting began the old fashioned way. For years, the people who sold you things online: shoes, socks, cars, time-shares in Florida, used data mining to find out what you bought or considered buying to pitch you things they thought you might want.
The products were identified and so were the brand names behind them. The whole deal was open and direct enough that it could be comfortably turned aside. No harm, no foul; and little wonder at how the sock salesman guessed you liked orange and green stripes. All they wanted was your money.
The new online salesforce wants your vote, and in the end, they want to destroy your democracy.
Today’s political pitch-people include stand-ins for genuine tyrants like Vladimir Putin and for mere wannabe friends-of-tyrants like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Jr and Robert and Rebekah Mercer. What makes them different from yesterday’s digital Mad Men is that they aren’t penetrating the privacy of your wallet or purse; their data-gathering is focused on the privacy of your head, your interests, your opinions, your associations.
Clients hire Cambridge Analytica, the online research firm tied to the Mercers and to Bannon, to target people likely to be susceptible to particular lines of manipulation. Sometimes they subtly reinforce pre-existing biases to produce positive judgments about the client. Sometimes they provoke negative feelings towards a client’s opponent.
But — and this is a second crucial difference between the retail marketers and the political persuaders — the latter never show their hand. They hide who paid for the political suggestions, just as they hide who is editorially responsible for them. After all, how many Americans would willingly take their political opinions from a gaggle of Macedonian teenagers? Especially if they knew that the ideas the Macedonian kids were peddling came straight out of the Kremlin?
The political trolls hardly had to modify their content at all. In form, it looked like a lot of today’s slapdash TV reporting, and in quality it resembled the click-bait you can find every day mixed in with so-called “real” news content. What the trolls and their directors needed to modify was the audience, eliminating critical thinkers and focusing on people their research showed were already leaning their client’s way. To these recipients, the whole world of news was so unworthy of their trust, it made sense to go with their beliefs. The distinctions being proposed between real and fake news, often hard to discern, seemed to make no difference.
The 2016 Russian assault on America’s Presidential election was enabled by falsified content, not much new there. But what made the falsifications work was the new ability to refine a poisoned message for every individual ear, including yours.
Find people who hate taxes or Muslims and it’s relatively easy to harden their biases into beliefs and then into directed political actions.
What might make such recruitment harder is if every message came with an authenticated signature. Of course, you wouldn’t expect a “fear your Muslim neighbor” message to end with, “Yours Truly, Vladimir Putin” or “the Boys from Skopje.” But even if the declaration of responsibility was pseudonymous, “The Committee for a Better World,” say, the shell would likely be only one Google click away from being popped off the slug beneath.
We need fixes. The Russian pollution of our 2016 election (and the BREXIT vote and the 2017 French, German, Austrian, Polish and Hungarian elections) will either be a wake-up call to American voters or it will be a watershed, the redefining entry point of a new source of corruption in American politics.
Russia and Wikileaks had the will to destroy America’s 2016 Presidential selection process. But someone had to show them the way to smart bomb American voters with tailored releases of hacked Democratic embarrassments and spurious Republican arguments. Maybe Russian intelligence figured it out on its own. Or maybe the Cambridge Analytica investor Jared Kushner tipped them to his company’s “secret sauce” capability during one of his “business visits” with Russians, pushing his corporate as well as political interests.
The digital universe we all inhabit is constantly redefining “connections.” We now have Facebook “friends” and Twitter “conversations” and a perpetual supply of YouTube “revelations” — “It must be real, I saw the video.” These digital hookups can feel as close and personal as we want to make them, and yet, at the same time, their origins are remote and their sincerity is unknowable.
Is the “friend” real? Is the quote accurate? Who’s the source? Has the video been manipulated? Who’s to say?
Well, we are. It’s all on us: what we decide we will believe, act on, vote on.
We’re in a tough spot. Bannon and the Mercers, and by 2018, a dozen more algorithmic influencers, will know exactly who you are, what you care about and how much, not to mention the predilections and expectations that drive you. They’ll know just how to bait the hook.
Your hook. It’s you they’re after. It is personal.
And national. The much-ballyhooed threat of a suicidal North Korean nuclear missile attack is distant and barely credible. The threat to our electoral democracy from the malign intentions of a Russian autocrat and some American plutocrats is immediate and much more dangerous.