Listen Up Smarty Pants: Fake News is Smarter Than You

How tired (and now almost immune to) are you of the term ‘fake news’? One particularly odious result (just one???) of the 2016 election has been the schoolyard-like terms and taunts now part of our collective lexicon. From ‘fake news’ to ‘snowflake’ and the ‘na na na’ sounding ‘crooked Hillary’ (which frankly should have been met with a relentlessly repeated Trumplestiltskin – but that’s a blog for another day).

As a member of the ‘so very over it’ club you might have then missed or ignored the recent story about Facebook’s election-related ad buy from a Kremlin-connected firm. The details are murky, the impact unclear, and Facebook’s admission lauded by some for its transparency and derided by others for its opaqueness.

Here’s why you need to listen up…even the most switched on, informed, skeptical, info- savvy amongst us are spending our days sharing valuable personal information. And I’m not talking about explicit form-filling, questionnaire-answering type of information….like not providing your exact birthday online or email address to the store cashier…no I’m talking about the type of information that gets to know your beliefs, interests, etc.

Huh, you say? Well…let’s take it back to Facebook….

We love it. We share our celebrations, concerns, condolences; we recap travel adventures, parties, milestones and cute ‘friendship anniversary’ videos. It’s all very private, of course, because we vet our connections, know how to target posts to groups of friends vs. colleagues or family vs. college pals and change all of those advertising settings to ‘hell no.’

But even the smartest of us are feeding the beast. Day in and day out across the web, the data beast knows what makes your heart sing and you let it happen willfully…

Here is a deceptively simple example:

What Facebook Knows About Me! (2)

In reality, the Facebook ’social graph’ is even more complex than what you see above. Imagine something more akin to the Spirograph you played with when young…and you are simply one little data point on that pretty picture. And it’s clever and will become increasingly clever over time and even so clever that it out-clevers little ‘ole clever you.

And that’s the problem. Data will outsmart us and make us do things and believe things based on knowing how we act, our mores, what influences us and so on. Now layer on top of this money. Lots and lots of money. Facebook, for example, is a publicly-traded, commercially-focused business. Don’t let the ‘connect the world’ rhetoric fool you…it’s a business not a charity.

This brings us back to Russia’s interference in the election and the preponderance of ‘fake news’….

While specifics of the company’s election-timed ad buy(s) and results are murky, what is clear is what it means to you (1) you may read something compelling, well-written and find it hard to tell if it is indeed true. So, do a bit of research and look for multiple views /articles on a given subject; (2) don’t ignore it when a piece of content says ‘sponsored’ at the top; even if it’s something you are interested in, ‘sponsored’ means paid for and targeted directly to you knowing you will be interested; (3) keep generally aware. It’s begun, it’s happening, you can’t necessarily control the ways in which data collection and ad media targeting are upon us (…which will also become more complex as data drives AI) but humans are rational and skeptical beasts so for now we have the capacity to question everything…

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers. Voltaire