This has been a fun few weeks in the information distribution high seas. The biggest news, as boring as it might seem to some, is that Google and Twitter are putting a bit of a kibosh on how their users can be targeted by political ads. More specifically, these platforms are forcing political ads to target users a bit more generally by outlawing a practice called "micro-targeting."
So, for example, instead of the "DMB for Pirate Captain of America" campaign being able to target a few dozen or a few hundred very specific individuals with very high pirate tendencies with a very specific add campaign such as this one, "All the rest of these candidates suck. They eat nothing but veal and foie gras. They want to steal your CBD oil in the night and use it to lubricate their automatic weapons which they then sell to known terrorist cells," the DMB campaign would instead be forced to send their message to a wider group of possible pirates based on an amalgamation of their data points.
I can hear some of you say, "Big, hairy deal." Well, my wooly friends, this is still significant for a couple of reasons. First, the DMB campaign might be more likely to tone down its rhetoric due to its inability to fine tune which people receive which message. If DMB were to send out this flaming misinformation campaign to a broadly targeted group and it turns out that the message honks off 23% of its recipients, then that's bad for their Pirate Captain of America efforts.
Second, due to DMB's wider campaign it is much more likely that the messaging is overheard by opposing PofA candidates who now have the ability to respond in kind. Again, this reality might tend to enforce a bit of stringency on the DMB campaign messaging due to the likelihood it boomerang.
Will these new rule changes on Google and Twitter really make a positive difference? It's too early to tell. Personally, I think it is important that platforms are trying something. The new digital frontier is a dangerous place due to its current void of any kind of regulation or policing.
A recent podcast episode of "Reset" by Vox Media illustrated what I find to be the creepiest and most insidious aspect of micro-targeting practices. The guest on the show, a gentleman who worked on the groundbreaking social media efforts of the first Obama campaign, did a simple experiment with his father-in-law. Each man holds opposite end-of-the-political-spectrum beliefs about Trump's Russian involvement. They sat down side-by-side with their respective computers and performed the same Google search. They each received drastically different search results, each targeted for their current beliefs.
Holy crap! So...you're telling me I believe what I believe because that's all that Google is feeding me?
Yes. That's what I'm telling you.
What does this have to do with publishing?
Anywho, while I find all of this stuff interesting, in a terrifying sort of way, it isn't obvious that any of this will effect storytelling or the larger industry of publishing. But I enjoy combining headlines to see if I can scare myself. Along those lines, another headline popped onto my radar this week thanks to Jane Friedman's The Hotsheet (a paid newsletter).
CBS and Viacom have completed their merger.
CBS owns Simon and Schuster (S&S) which is one of the "big five" traditional publishers. At first blush, who cares, right? I mean, HarperCollins is a subsidiary of News Corp. Now S&S is owned by ViacomCBS instead of CBS.
It's totally possible none of this amounts to anything. But the more and more that traditional publishers are controlled by big data companies, the more I worry about the trust and respect these publishers have built up over time being abused in the same manner described above (via political ad micro-targeting).
If someone has written a book on something, they are for the most part still considered a knowledgable expert. Increasingly, we know that simply having a book to your name doesn't mean anything. Or does it?
It's no secret that non-fiction book sales, especially political tell-alls, have been a big money maker for traditional publishing recently. Is it a stretch to think that big-data information brokers, who happen to own large publishing companies, would use a combination of data harvesting and micro-targeting to publish and sell increasingly biased and sensational content (on both sides of the spectrum)?
Would it surprise you to find out that your father-in-law was targeted with a book highlighting the opposite end of the political spectrum from you? Should it be surprising that you get into an uncomfortable argument at Christmas dinner and end up sleeping on the couch? or in the bed of your oversized, urban truck (you monster!)?
Hey, it's nothing personal...to the people profiting off of our isolation and alienation. It's only personal to us.