In 1983 there was a theme that moved all West-Germany: a planned census. Every household in the country was supposed to fill out a questionnaire with 36 questions on the housing situation, persons living in the household, and their income situation. Massive resistance developed against this “governmental interference with our privacy sphere” at that time. […]
In 1983 there was a theme that moved all West-Germany: a planned census. Every household in the country was supposed to fill out a questionnaire with 36 questions on the housing situation, persons living in the household, and their income situation. Massive resistance developed against this “governmental interference with our privacy sphere” at that time. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs against the planned census: It violated data protection laws and thus the West-German constitution and was therefore stopped.
Just a generation later, we carelessly give out the supermarket chain’s bonus card each time we shop in order to collect a few points for a gift or discounts on the next purchase. We surf the internet, googling and shopping, emailing and chatting thus giving complete insight into much more than the German government wanted to know about its citizens 35 years ago. And we know very well that the supermarket gets to know our consumption behavior down to the last detail. What we do not know is who else received this data. Its buyers not only get information about the purchases we make, but can also use these to determine our habits, personal preferences, and income level. Meanwhile, we also know that Google, Facebook and Microsoft are not just watching all of this, they also store until the end of time everything we give, what we buy, what we are looking for. They research our e-mail addresses, our personal time management, our current location, our political, religious, and sexual preferences, our closest friends we are connected with online, our relationship status, which school we visit or visited. And how many people answer the Facebook question “What are you doing right now?” minutely in ever new entries? All this remains forever in the databases of the internet companies.
Only a few try to keep their footprint in the internet small. Stories about Facebook users who have not gotten a much desired job because the human resources department had found embarrassing old photos online, about reports of Erdogan-critical voices posted causing their authors great difficulties upon their next trip to Turkey, or personalized advertising for pregnancy products to minors, since by analyzing the consumption behavior of the young woman the supermarket knew of her pregnancy before her parents did, along with the probable date of birth – all this has some of us a little more cautious. But it is not enough to limit the availability of data on ourselves in the internet. Even those who deliberately avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, and e-mail services, always pay by cash in order to avoid credit cards, and do not seek erotic adventures online give away information about themselves. Anyone driving on the freeway or walking through the streets in major cities in Europe is being recorded. For new cars, it is common today to install an Internet connection including the software that registers at any time, where one goes by car, with what speed one is traveling and if one has parked illegally.
At the top of the “traitors” who reveal our most private secrets is the smartphone. There are the millions of apps, the small and discreet software packages that we ourselves load with just one click onto our smartphone and which have their own online life thereafter. They are the result of immeasurable human creativity, make the user have fun, steer their playing instincts into creative paths, and fuel their thirst for knowledge. Most apps do not cost money. Payment comes in another form: with our personal information.
Google and Facebook already know every detail of our “whereabouts” in the digital space of the Internet. The step of being able to follow our movements in the physical space is not that far away. And with all this, the American Internet giants hardly feel bound by foreign data protection standards, but act according to much weaker to inexistent American standards, if the feel bound by any rules at all. Unfortunately, the new EU data protection legislation from this May will only marginally change this.
But what do Facebook, Google and Co. actually need our data for? What makes them so valuable? One answer is: to fuel our wishes and thus our consumption. The data are a feast for the advertising industry and its goal to gain full transparency on people. Companies want to understand their customers down to the last detail in order to be able to satisfy their wishes. The more they know about their consumers’ preferences and credit ratings the higher their sales. For this purpose, shops measure with special cameras the pupil movements and facial expressions of their customers during their shopping and analyze these with the help of artificial intelligence algorithms in order to understand what customers are interested in to better tailor advertisement to their interests. Experiencing on a larger scale multiple forms of spontaneous, personalized advertising, such as billboards recognizing who we are and what we are likely to consume is just a matter of (short) time.
But there is yet another answer: Our data is used for political opinion-forming. And here lies a deeper danger to our democracy. Our data on the internet is collected, processed in many different ways for the purpose of manipulation, and then re-submitted to us. “Microtargeting” is the name of the game. This method targets specific segments of the population and voters selected and classified on the basis of their digital data as being particularly receptive to specific messages. Unfortunately, manipulation, propaganda, and lies are just as much a threat to our political opinion as the provision of true statements and facts. Particularly well-known for using these methods is the controversial company Cambridge Analytica which organized the on-line election campaign for both Trump and the Brexit campaign (but was had already been involved in 44 US election campaign in 2014). The company (which has since been dissolved due to its controversial activities) claims to have psychological data of approximately 220 million Americans with “four to five thousand data points on each one of them”. These profiles can be used to send each voter his or her own message, all too often shameless lies (in more recent jargon “alternative facts”). A major source of this data: Facebook.
Ever since the US Presidential campaign in 2016 and the Brexit vote, we know what devastating effects the digital manipulation of our political will can have. In particular, Donald Trump’s election campaign set entirely new standards for systematic misinformation, unscrupulous propaganda, and open lies (which Trump as US president continues to spread on a daily basis). After the US elections Facebook became subject to massive criticism to have carelessly published the sometimes completely absurd statements of the Trump camp (e.g. that the Pope supports Trump or that Hillary Clinton preside over a ring of child pornographers), and thus to have contributed to his election. In addition to classic tireless volunteer campaign workers and professional spin doctors, a key factor in the historic mud-slapping battles between Clinton and Trump as well the Brexit vote were computer-generated automated scripts that released artificially generated content on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, so called “bots “. A whole armada of Twitter messages and Facebook news systematically bombarded users with propaganda material – often with right-wing populist or even extremist content. Researchers estimate that 80 percent of Trump’s Twitter traffic was automated. The artificial accounts were surprisingly complex. They used e.g. artificial intelligence to have the machine engage in a conversation with people. For example, after the first TV duel between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which Clinton even according to Republicans clearly won, bots suggested that the hashtag #TrumpWon (“Trump triumphed”) became a trending topic on Twitter. These messages were almost entirely robot-generated. There were even Hispanic bots who pretended to speak for the majority of Latinos supporting Trump, while it was well known that the Latinos were overwhelmingly against the Republican candidate. In the end, unexpectedly, a third of Latinos voted for Trump – a consequence of Internet propaganda?
The election of an utterly incompetent candidate for the highest post in America is a historic breaking point, and we are being forced to realize the unprecedented damage it is inflicting. And the Brexit debate will keep the British busy for years and even decades to come, and it looks like it will have a devastating impact on the previously politically so pragmatic and prudent British society.
Why do such fake news have so much power on us? For every false statement and lie, there are dozens of entries that more truthfully reflect reality. The problem is that we use information from the internet only very selectively. We just want to know the part that fits our views. Everything else we disregard. And our data gives manipulators the means to feed us exactly with the information that serves their purposes. So it is not just the lies themselves that do the work. Above all, it is the availability of lists with people who are most likely receptive to these lies. These lists are the essential part taken from the digital spy software of Google, Facebook, and Co. The user profile of each one of us at Google, determined by unknown criteria, governs what we see on the internet. This creates isolated islands of information that provide everyone with the very information and opinions that fit his or her “profile”. The consequence is that one does not encounter any disturbances or surprises any longer, but is constantly confirmed in his own perceptions and world view. Once formulated opinions are thus more and more solidified. The important discourse across various opinions and interpretations thus gets lost. This reminds us of the scenario of a completely manipulated society drawn up by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984. What we do not know, we will not get to know through the Internet. We thus remain caught in our own information bubble. Bottom line the internet causes knowledge limitation rather than knowledge multiplication. It is increasingly displaying totalitarian features.
That this not only influenced two important elections in 2016, but that today, two years later, our political decision-making is being manipulated on an even broader scale two more examples illustrate: In the USA, the ultra-conservative multi-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch with their financial empire and dark donation and funding channels created the most powerful propaganda machine in the US. Its political lobby institute Americans for Prosperity systematically creates profiles of broad parts of the population with the goal to manipulate voters using methods described above. With tremendous success, as it turned out: For example, the perception of the importance of climate change has changed dramatically among Americans in recent years. Fifteen years ago, three-quarters of Republicans pushed for strict environmental laws. Today it is only one third of them. The Kochs have not only a philosophical, but also a string material interest in changing our minds. Their companies are among the ten worst air polluters in the United States. In particular, Koch Industries are the largest producers of toxic waste. Currently, the Koch brother’s propaganda is aimed against the public transport system in many areas of the US, also here with success. And yet again as a supplier to the automobile industry they profit directly financially. The second example deals yet again with Cambridge Analytica: While the company became known through its influence during the US presidential election less known are its numerous and extensive manipulative activities in other elections and votes, e.g. in India in 2010, in Kenya in 2013 and 2017 (as a result of which official investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s activities have been requested) and in Mexico in 2018. In spring, the company claimed that it had acted in more than 200 elections around the world.
It is conservative and extremist parties that are manipulatively most active in this way. Right-wing extremist conspiracy theorists, islamophobics, misogynist, homophobic groups, and other extremist political circles have identified the Internet as an ideal platform for their political propaganda and are generating massive disinformation cascades. Because many citizens are unable to evaluate the sources of a message or critically question the power of an argument, we are increasingly living in a post-factual society. That puts our democracy to test. The digital revolution has attacked its immune system and disrupted our intellectual tracking devices for right and wrong. We can observe that humans have always had a hard time dealing with new media critically. We amuse ourselves to death, prophesied the philosopher Neil Postman in the 1980s (thus described our relationship with the television). From today’s perspective, a brilliant anticipation of the developments. And one can go back even further: In the late 1920s and 1930s the newly developed radio was an essential propaganda instrument used by the Nazis in Germany.
How far the data control can go, shows us the example of China. There, the government has announced to introduce a so-called Citizen’s Score: It assigns points to everybody based on information about tax honesty, traffic behavior and income, but also on political opinions, conformity to the communist party’s guidelines, hobbies and consumption. Those who fall below a certain value because they were on the wrong websites or have the wrong friends on Facebook are excluded from certain jobs or careers, or their ability to travel is being constrained. A high point value provides rewards such as visa facilitation or better access to a good school for the kids. Particularly effective is that the score of friends on social media are part of person’s rating. Being friends with a dissident leads to an immediate drop of one’s score. And who puts his kids’ education at risk to express support for a friend’s political views? This generates an effective social pressure to isolate and exclude those who deviate from the official guidelines.
Modern digital technologies are giving totalitarian and ruthless rulers an unprecedented level of power: technology for complete surveillance and manipulation. Just imagine the National Socialists in the 1930s or the Stasi in the GDR with this technology. Any resistance against the regime would have been hopeless from the beginning. We could be closer to George Orwell’s dystopia than we think.
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