Sunday, January 12, 2020

1/12/20: The Great Hack & The Great War of The 21st Century

After rotting in my queue for a couple of months, and one too many recommendations, I finally watched The Great Hack on Netflix. This feature-length documentary is worthwhile as a means to understand how our stolen data is not only being sold, but used to exploit the hole in our psychological firewall to manipulate and "trigger" what they call "persuadables" into a desired response or action. Or, non-action. It's essential if you're more than slightly interested in the subject. But...

The Great Hack is incomplete and with its own content bias, one focusing almost exclusively on how Cambridge Analytica worked to help Bannon/Trump/Farange, and other right-wing authoritarians, win elections via targeted social media "advertising" campaigns. Also, the psychological weapons deployed and discussed are the same ones explored in my podcast. In the documentary they remained unnamed, presumably out of unfamiliarity with the science. Allow me to introduce you: meet The Agitation Propaganda of Insurgency. Weaponized fear and anger specifically targeted to incite primal hatred. A dangerously powerful, and universal, human emotion.

Yes, even in you Moonbeam. Any idea where I can find an Arya Stark action figure?

I used the present tense "are the same" intentionally, although Cambridge Analytica ultimately liquidated itself to avoid investigation and disclosure. It was one company; a singular example of something much larger. To think C.A. was "the" problem is like believing nuclear weapons are less dangerous because Oppenheimer died. Their data collection and collation and psychological exploitation technology is still out there. Assuming, or choosing to believe, that the data C.A. collected on all of us was destroyed before it was shared or sold is dangerously naive. That information is worth billions to anyone looking to not only win an election, but sew discord, division, and destabilize a population without firing a shot. Our personal data is a psychological profile and a weapon in informational warfare.

To be fair, this feature-length documentary was billed as being about Cambridge Analytica. But, in my opinion, this is where this documentary missed a huge opportunity. Despite being a new production, The Great Hack only barely touches on the Russian exportation of disinformation and leaves the connection between the ongoing, and sure to intensify, Russian social media campaign and the likely connection between Cambridge Analytica, Wikileaks, and Putin mostly unexplored by comparison. To it's credit,  it at least dabbles with a simplistic exploration at the end. The simple reality is that Cambridge Analytica is history. Malicious state sponsored disinformation is the future. So is the for-profit domestic Agitation Media Industrial Complex.

Quick Guiding Light Tangent: Where they've failed, others are picking up the slack. Consider these folks and their work Required Consumption for the Concerned: 

Renee DiResta: From Russia With Likes, two parts
Matt Taibbi: Hate, Inc - Review coming; Deep dive into my Media 101 episode from early 2018.
Your Undivided Attention Podcast
Nicholas Carr: The Shallows

This is another place where the documentary falls short: not even beginning to explore the for-profit agitation propaganda model that saturates all forms of social and traditional media as the new decade dawns. I’ve called this boutique news. Producing a “preferred” ideological product tailored to one ideological religion or another featuring a bountifully agitating buffet of “their” evil to lather up the “righteous” faithful. Oh, and by the way, sell dick pills.

By now, the examples of CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and other cable infotainment channels don’t even need to be pointed out. But this profit-model has been picked up by everyone from the now-digital traditional print outlets and social media “influencers” of all breeds across the ideological spectrum. The New York Times oftentimes looks like Slate, Huffington Post, Occupy Democrats, and other naked propaganda publications in that they are the photonegative version of Breitbart circa 2015. Of course, their loyal readers will only see Breitbart’s rhetorical fuckery. And vice versa. This is something else that’s universal: their “propaganda: is your “education.”

Where The Great Hack does very well is in imploring the viewer to acknowledge their own vulnerability to targeted advertising and propaganda in general. Everyone from Lippmann, Bernays, Ellul, on down has been consistent: no one is immune to psychological manipulation. Especially those who are unaware it’s happening. The most “educated” and “informed” among us are, in fact, more susceptible to propaganda and disinformation because they consider themselves to be too sophisticated to fall under its spell. In fact, their education and addiction to the day’s “news” turn them into what Jacques Ellul called The Current Events Man. The person who’s already laid the informational foundation upon which disinformation and propaganda is built. When it comes to the truth, as Jefferson said, he who knows nothing is closer to it than the man who believes falsehood. Or, I would add, distortion.

See also: Zinnification.

The Great Hack does a very good job at one other thing: acknowledging the attack on reality via data overload. “Nothing is as it seems.” When everything is spin and propaganda, and it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the truth from falsehood. Nothing can be trusted. No one can be believed. The natural tendency is to give up, cognitively disconnect, and surrender to one data and informational sect or another or simply drown in hopeless apathy to avoid the hard work of finding and excavating whatever truth is buried somewhere atop Mt. Bullshit. If there's a path to empathy, that's it.

I’ve called this informational dystopia the Great War of the 21st Century.  When the Social Media Wars are fully downloaded from the Matrix into this, the Desert of the Real, it will look like...and will be sold as...a war of “ideas” and the “future” of this country or that.  In fact, it will be the ground war in the conflict between distorted Virtual Realities. What should* be the actual battlefield will probably be barren: the fight to maintain a real human connection to the external and genuine truth. “Truth is singular.” It’s organic and lives apart from the individual; outside the influence of conveniently molded agenda and narcissistic perception. These manipulated perceptions are Personal Propagandas disguised as truth. These are mistruths. And, as time goes on, I suspect that the rumor of an external truth existing outside mob-based distortions will be ripped from the collective human consciousness.

Perhaps you disagree. Great. Show your work.

Detachment: Facebook Must Die

Over the last year, two things have become crystal clear. First and foremost, it’s almost impossible, but essential, to somehow emotionally and psychologically disconnect from the Perception Wars. The time has come to get the identity dog out of the fight.

From Mill to Tocqueville to Ellul and, indirectly, Lippmann to Bernays to McLuhan and even Carr and Dr. Eli, it’s been shown that emotional and psychological attachment is the greatest impediment to independent thought. An infusion of their sect’s agenda to your identity is what all propagandists seek. Once they’ve melded themselves to your very sense of who and what you are, you’ve become a faithful and fanatical ally. Then they have you. You’ll do 3/4 of their work for them because you want to believe whatever they say. An almost obsessive detachment is the only hope for the man seeking critical thought. It’s an isolated and lonely existence, but if he would be a man rather than fabricant, that’s the only path.

Secondly, Facebook must die. That platform...along with Twitter and cable/internet “news” to a lesser degree...has always been, and continues to be, the delivery system. Herr Zuckerbeast is Dr. Frankenstein. He exploited the human need for recognition and validation; general human fallibility; for profit and in the process inadvertently created the Social Media Disease’s patient zero. It’s the platform-of-choice for both domestic and state propaganda campaigns. It’s the platform on which much, though surely not all, of your personal data is gathered, and the means by which our electoral minds are hacked by the advertiser’s and propagandist’s algorithms; the firewall entry left gaping because they know us better than we even want know ourselves. One way or another, if we are ever going to maintain a semblance of unity and not descend into global tribalist cannibalism, that platform has to be regulated into impotence or euthanized all together.

On most things, I tend to lean either slightly left or Libertarian. But, in the matter of informational anarchy, I see the unregulated internet’s wild west traits to be far more dangerous to humanity than anything else I can think of, including climate change; the inability to address climate change falls under the Informational Anarchy's "Reality of Choice" umbrella. Ask Mr. Trump.

Informational and Media Literacy must also be taken as seriously as any other immunization. Communicable infections of the mind are likely as big of a threat in the 2020’s as influenza was 100-years ago. Before this latest pandemic is treated it may, indeed, kill as many people as the flu around WW1. Or, as Yuval Harari has speculated, virtually enslave them under the Tyranny of The Electronic Algorithm. Those are my words, not his. And my money’s on blood.

Perhaps you think I’m being melodramatic and fatalistic; perhaps you fall into Harari’s Huxleyian camp, or maybe you’re a Pinkerist who believes in the forthcoming Technological Rapture and the Utopian Vision of humanity? Again, show me your work; show me the path. I’ll continue showing mine, but one thing’s for certain, this has only just begun and the speed at which it’s traveling is increasing by the week.

Hey! This is the first "content" I've farted into the 2020's! Perfect.

*The Religion of the Holy Should. Coming soon.