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We All Wear Tinfoil Hats Now 

Geoff Shullenberger

How fears of mind control went from paranoid delusion to conventional wisdom

In early 2017, after the double shock of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica gained sudden notoriety. The previously little-known company, reporters claimed, had used behavioral influencing techniques to turn out social media users to vote in both elections. By its own account, Cambridge Analytica had worked with both campaigns to produce customized propaganda for targeting individuals on Facebook likely to be swept up in the tide of anti-immigrant populism. Its methods, some news sources suggested, might have sent enough previously disengaged voters to the polls to have tipped the scales in favor of the surprise victors. To a certain segment of the public, this story seemed to answer the question raised by both upsets: How was it possible that the seemingly solid establishment consensus had been rejected? What’s more, the explanation confirmed everything that seemed creepy about the Internet, evoking a sci-fi vision of social media users turned into an army of political zombies, mobilized through subliminal manipulation.

Cambridge Analytica’s violations of Facebook users’ privacy have made it an enduring symbol of the dark side of social media. However, the more dramatic claims about the extent of the company’s political impact collapse under closer scrutiny, mainly because its much-hyped “psychographic targeting” methods probably don’t work. As former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez noted in a 2018 Wired article, “the public, with no small help from the media sniffing a great story, is ready to believe in the supernatural powers of a mostly unproven targeting strategy,” but “most ad insiders express skepticism about Cambridge Analytica’s claims of having influenced the election, and stress the real-world difficulty of changing anyone’s mind about anything with mere Facebook ads, least of all deeply ingrained political views.” According to García, the entire affair merely confirms a well-established truth: “In the ads world, just because a product doesn’t work doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.” ...

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Geoff Shullenberger is a lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.

Geoff Shullenberger, "We All Wear Tinfoil Hats Now," The New Atlantis, Number 60, Fall 2019, pp. 87-98.