Manipulating Your Opinions
It was 1997 when a clever little devil named Peter Siemens and I had a conversation. “What if I could collect information on people on the Internet that would help me advertise to them?” he asked, or something like that. It was a while ago. Indeed, what if you could? This was an era of do it because you can, so I started playing around.
At this time I had just started Granite Internet, an ISP business that also built web sites. It was the infancy of the world wide web, before rules and ethics. Amazon still only sold books, and you had to decide for yourself which ones you wanted. Most people didn’t trust the Internet well enough to shop online anyway. Google was not even a name yet, much less a verb.
I started to put little snippets into my web pages, just to see what I could find out about you. Even then it was quite a lot.
At every conference back then there would be at least one session on ethics. Lively debate was taking place behind those doors. Should you collect data on people without telling them? What should you do with that data? What if you could “see” what else people were doing on the Internet? Could you base the content of your website on individual tastes?
Yes, this was being discussed in 1997 and even practiced to some extent. It was around this time when Amazon started using “people who ordered this book also liked this one.” That seemed like a useful tool. For Amazon to sell more books, but also to us, the consumers who usually would enjoy that other novel. At first they based it on past orders, but things got more sophisticated pretty quickly.
On the Internet a cookie is a small text file that you are being asked to accept to be stored on your computer. It contains information that will identify you when you return to that website, so information can be tailored just for you.
Along comes social media. We started happily providing the most intimate details of our lives, willingly and openly. Have you answered a silly little quiz on Facebook lately? Did you notice that you agreed to share your friends list for the privilege? Who remembers this old gizmo. Bingo, got your age. Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, Youtube … THEY know everything about us now.
What I See is Not What You See
Have you ever, and I know you have, cocked your head in disbelief at what other people believe? Just before Trump was elected I was sitting in an outdoor cafe in Quebec City getting to know two American women who had just stepped off a cruise ship. In another era we would have had a lot in common. But then politics came up, and I cocked my head. These two women were fully entrenched in the Trump camp. They seemed so normal to me until then.
The goal of any web designer is to get their content onto your computer screen. I learned a long time ago that googling myself is not worth the keystrokes. Look at that, I’m number one! I’m on page 99 on everyone else’s google feed though. What I see is not what you see.
Back to the Ethics Debate
It started off so innocently. Not really, but that’s how we talked about it back then. People want ads for services and products they would be interested in. It makes no sense to market Canadian Tire to a fashionista. Men don’t want to see tampon commercials.
Search engines and shopping sites took things to the next level. Where else have you been? What else are you looking at? What are you buying? What made you buy that? What will make you buy this? Don’t worry, this is all for your benefit. So we can streamline your search results, give you only want you want.
The Internet in Your Pocket
Guessing what you might want to see became delivering what I want you to see pretty quickly when the Internet went into your pockets. Breaking news, incoming messages, notifications, text messages – hardly a minute goes by when the Internet doesn’t invade our space. You can really step up manipulation when it’s constant. There’s no way to read it all. We glance at headlines and misleading photos, and form opinions. Go off the grid for a while and the silence is deafening!
And can you say tailored? Everything you see is tailored just for you now. I can’t even see the other side. Companies like Cambridge Analytica collected over 5000 pieces of data on over 220 million Americans in order to manipulate social media feeds and get Trump elected. The same company was hired to harvest data to influence the vote on Brexit. Governments around the world flocked to these data mining sites, and invested much of their campaign funds because they are so effective.
My google searches all deliver websites that think this is a bad thing. Yours might not?
So where do your opinions come from? What about your shopping habits? Are you in charge of your own thoughts? Or have you succumbed to the great manipulation of the World Wide Web? Do you know?
I know I don’t know. I routinely try and see into the other side. I watch snippets of Fox News on Youtube. I have tried to listen to Alex Jones or Tucker Carlson or the My Pillow Guy. It all seems so silly to me, hard to believe how anyone can believe any of it. But that’s not what’s in my pocket.
My pocket is full of CBC and climate change and saving rain forests. This is my reality, and where my opinion come from, just so you can judge me accordingly the next time I make you cock your head.
The goal of this post is not to scare you. Not really. But it’s a strange new world, and you should know that.
I wonder who will see this blog post?