You are not special, no matter what your newsfeed tells you

Bad faith actors are agnostic, and fake news is nothing new. That's why in a democracy you can never go to sleep, and you can never think you are special.

vol. 2 issue 4

A special message for all subscribers.


Many of my readers know that I recently debuted a class called Deconstructing the News. If you’d like to learn more about it, you can contact me by responding to this post with an email. The conversation with my class has continued off-line, but it’s worth bringing out into the open.

One of my goals was to make clear that while the available technology for disseminating false narratives and “fake news” is new, their function is not. What is that function? To trick you into believing something advantageous to those who will profit somehow when they take your power, whether it be your money or your freedom.

I think that is important to keep in mind because if you come to believe that your having been misinformed is simply because you are not “tech savvy” enough, you will shy away from seeking out the messages that are true, hide from it all, and hope for the best. But if you do, then you lose and they, whoever they are, win. In the case of politics, what they win is the power to speak for you, either by suppressing your inclination to vote, or urging you to vote for their candidate, not necessarily the one that actually reflects best who you are and what you value.

You are intelligent and savvy enough to protect your mind, and thus your vote. It is critical to understand that.

I was thinking of that this morning after reading a letter written yesterday by historian Heather Cox Richardson in her subscription series, “Letters from an American”, to which I highly recommend you subscribe. It is free, but the exchange for that price of “free” is greater insight into how best to protect freedom.

Dr. Richardson points out that it’s been decades in the making but that our democracy has been sliding into the toilet the more we have concerned ourselves with what the government has done for us lately, not what are the principals of democracy and how we can practice it and get really good at it. Dr. Richardson argues that neoliberals (the Conservative Movement) have been the most successful at crafting the narrative that it’s AMERICA we have to preserve, not democracy. Their successful narrative is what had helped push us to where we are now.

Key to their messaging has been that some of us are good and others of us are evil.

Here’s my short hand for that: I know you’re a snowflake, but what am I? Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.

There is, as my students and I discussed in the context of the data harvesting firm Cambridge Analytica (see the video of former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix above, which is chilling in its mercenary approach to taking control of your mind), an effort to suppress your vote, and the votes of others who might think that the situation has become too bleak for their voice to make a difference.

As the link above will explain to you, this was done by using your data, primarily harvested from a fake quiz on Facebook designed to trick you into giving up the sweet spot they needed to create highly targeted messages — maybe even only one message made digitally crafted just for you. If you saw that message enough times, even though you were the only one to see it, it made it seem like everyone else believed that, too. Screw the facts! You could think you were right about everything, that your world view is the right world view, and you knew it all along!

Even though Cambridge Analytica no longer exists in theory, the data trove (Cambridge Analytica claimed it to be 5,000 pieces of data on EVERY ADULT IN THE US) still does and we’re not sure who has access to it, but last to be associated with it publicly here in the States was former Trump advisor, Steve Bannon.

If this scares you, then of course, you will need to get out to the polls.

But, wait a second. Pondering that mystery has me thinking about how Dr. Richardson’s argument underscores mine: voting is essential, but it’s step number two. I argue that the first step is to know that the information you are basing your vote on is valid.

You have to test your truth before you vote it.

That is why deconstructing the news and the (mis)information pelting us at every turn is essential.

If the technology exists, anyone with the means and the desire to use it for power will. Full stop. Do I think the Trump campaign will weaponize our data against us again? Hell yeah.

But now there is evidence that the Democratic National Committee is employing the same kinds of tactics that the Trump campaign used in 2016. Perhaps it’s not through dirty tricks, but it is no comfort that the Dems have created — with the help of some of the same Facebook employees behind the Cambridge Analytica scheme — an app called “Shadow” that is designed to use our data to make us love them. It is also how they crashed the Iowa caucus, which this post details. My take away is that being a Democrat or a Republican is irrelevant. Principals aren’t important, profits are.

So then, back to the rest of us. We do not have to know everything before we vote. But we definitely should be suspicious of digitally crafted messaging that tells us how special we are, and reaffirms our beliefs so we continue to feel justified in our “specialness”. We definitely should be checking out second and third media outlets to triangulate the information we get that sounds too good to be true, because it 99% of the time will be. Do the work. Own the message, not let the message and the messager own you.

What is special is democracy, not you. Not me. Not any identity-based group.

I agree with Dr. Richardson in that if we focus on finding information and candidates that re-enforce the principles of democracy, not the transactional “What have you done for me lately?” or “Does this make me look smart and enhance my standing with the group to which I identify?”, we will be appropriately informed enough to live in peace in a democracy made for adults, not naricisisstic brats who want to hear what they want to hear about how they deserve all the things and the hell with the rest of us.