The influence of the network

Another fascinating day at Julia Hobsbawm’s Names Not Numbers event in London. It’s a hugely eclectic day, yesterday spanning the role of theatre in politics, advances in the life sciences, David Bowiethe neuroscience of truth and an interview with the artist Maggi Hambling who I think has now become my favourite sweary creative (wrestling the crown from Steve Price).

At the end of the afternoon there was a debate on the subject of fake news and the of the media. There was quite extensive mention of the book Dark Money, and the role that technology and companies like Cambridge Analytica may have had in targeting political propaganda to influence recent elections.

On the one hand, I retain the scepticism that I also hold for much of the current wave of big data/data science/AI/machine learning hype that abounds at the moment. The resounding evidence of my own eyes is that most online digital marketing is still remarkably dumb. Retargeted display adverts based on products I’ve just search is needy. The entire display as industry demonstrates distinct signs of being a huge scam. Advertisers use increasingly intrusive formats to get in the way of me doing what I actually want to do. If this is precision targeting, I’d hate to see the mass media approach.

But on the other hand, if you throw enough muck at the screen, some of it psychologically sticks. As Robert Cialdini argues in the excellent Pre-suasion, just putting brands in front of us makes them stick in our subconscious.

Which takes me to the other side of the Dark Money theory, which is that if enough propaganda gets out then it will stick. Moreover, if that messaging is placed in between the ongoing life stories of those that we love and trust (Facebook) rather than stuff that is remote to us (conventional news media) might we be more softened-up psychologically for those messages to become lodged?

Much of the debate at the moment is framed around people as conscious, rational actors. Which we are. But we are also subconscious vessels, and it might be that side of our make up where fake news is having biggest impact. That doesn’t require super-targeted messaging. Just enough money to fund a constant stream and the social proof inherented from those messages merely being present on a social network. It also seriously calls to question to terribly over-rational views of some of the big players in social networks.

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