Almost exactly three years ago, the news broke that Facebook had manipulated the news feeds of over half a million randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw as part of a psychological study to see how emotions could be spread on social media.
Two years later, Facebook acknowledged that “malicious actors” had created “fake personas” to spread misinformation on the site, updating this a week later with the admission that “any person's Facebook account could also become the target of malicious actors… who could potentially access sensitive information that might help them advance harmful information operations.”
How did we get here? How is social media being deliberately utilized to evoke anger, hatred, bigotry, and religious zealotry?
The answer may lie in the way that social media and big data intersect. A recent article, How Big Data Mines Personal Info to Craft Fake News and Manipulate Voters, by Nina Burleigh over at Newsweek focused on a company most people have never heard of - Cambridge Analytica. (Nina Burleigh also wrote a Newsweek exclusive, lead, homepage article on May 22nd 2017 about the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) of which I am the founder and president)
Cambridge Analytica has been building a massive database of data on Americans, according to CEO Alexander Nix, who explained how the company was appealing directly to people’s emotions, bypassing cognitive roadblocks. Nix then went on to say how his company was using Big Data, “mining it for political purposes, to identify “mean personality”.
This type of psychological profile, according to Burleigh, is rarely used for good. The 2016 election prompted the use of Big Data and Facebook targeting to enable what is being called the “most aggressive microtargeting in political history”.
Narrow groups of individuals were first identified, then whipped into a frenzy. The system, Burleigh explains, was used for “pulling ‘low-information’ new voters into the body politic and expanding the boundaries of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic political speech.”
Burleigh went on to say that it wasn’t just angry racists being pulled into the pool, but intellectually gullible individuals, and the combination was utilized to “break the so-called Overton window.”
The Overton window is a term used to describe the outer limit of what is commonly acceptable speech. For those who might normally hide their racism or bigotry, social media provided the ability to cower anonymously behind a keyboard and spew vitriol - which allowed them to be targeted with messages designed to feed their hate and fear.
Small groups of people who might have had nothing in common but anti-Semitic speech and a fondness for pages run by white supremacists and televangelists suddenly found themselves exposed to an echo chamber of content tailored specifically to them – with the help of Facebook, companies and organizations could target these now segmented groups with “dark ads”, meant for their eyes only.
These tactics contributed greatly to what happened in 2016 - when a tsunami of racist sentiment, white supremacy, resentment of refugees, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and virulent misogyny overflowed the banks of social media and spewed out into campus posters and public rallies.
It showed how easily fear can be encouraged into resentment, then fanned into rage. We saw it in Portland when a man harassed two women he perceived as Muslim on a bus, then stabbed those who objected to his behavior. We saw it this week, when an enraged man opened fire on Congressmen and staff at a baseball practice.
We at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation see and fight this illicit, vicious hatred in the U.S. military, where evangelical, fundamentalist, Christian Dominionism and Crusader visuals and terms are used unconstitutionally to create even wider divides between us and our so-called enemies. I personally see this kind of brutal, ad-hominem aggression directed at me, my family and, MRFF daily on social media and in my email.
All is not lost, however. Although many live in echo chambers of hate, fear, and denial, we can sometimes change people’s hearts and minds.
I received an email string just the other day that started with a list of insults against Liberals and “faggots” and progressed to telling me to kill myself – but after some back and forth, a genuine apology was actually proffered by the original author of that hate speech and accepted by me as the recipient of same. This happy result doesn’t always work, of course, but it does often enough that we should never give up trying to break people out of their cocoons of hate. And, believe me when I say that there is NO hate quite like fundamentalist Christian hate.
That said, however, I also received another email this week from a conservative, born-again, evangelical (non-fundamentalist) Christian with whom I have enjoyed a long-term and close personal friendship. Having had members of my own family slaughtered in the Holocaust, this email truly rocked my world. Though its words were few and succinct, its impact was indomitable and forever.
Through unstoppable tears, I internalized its simple message over and over and over. Again and again:
“We visited Auschwitz today. The most evil place I've ever been to. There was an exhibit of seized Jewish luggage and one had "Weinstein" written on the side in big bold letters. I thought of you and your family and knew that Auschwitz is what happens when hate is glorified, institutionalized and merges with state power. Keep fighting hate my friend!”
Yes my friends, keep fighting indeed.