Columns » Gene Lyons

No clue

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So here's my question: If you're all about personal privacy, why are you on Facebook to begin with? Neither Cambridge Analytica nor any other internet marketing firm has any information about you that you didn't give away. The rest is mainly hype and wishful thinking. Besides, your ZIP code's a better guide to your politics than some imagined psychological profile.

Facebook is a public place. I can't imagine why anybody would think otherwise. The only approach to posting personal details there is to recognize that fact. I've no idea what percentage of my "friends" are even acquaintances in real life, and act accordingly. Some probably come closer to being enemies.

Short of appearing on TV, a habit I quit years ago, posting on Facebook is the most public thing I do — including writing this column. Pretty much any of Facebook's 2 billion users worldwide can check out my profile, with its quick personal history and photos of some particularly lovely cows.

Or, for that matter, your own profile. Anybody who scrolls down mine would notice that I am inordinately fond of basset hounds, orange tabby cats and horses. They can see a photo of my wife with a 120-pound Great Pyrenees in her lap. Although I've seen that dog thrash two coyotes and help his partner, Maggie, chase a cougar halfway across Perry County, thunder frightens him, and he requires comforting.

A fan of the Boston Red Sox and Arkansas Razorbacks, my musical preferences run to British rock and American country. My response to a Salon article depicting Stormy Daniels as a "feminist hero" was to post a video of the Rolling Stones "Star, Star" — a misogynist classic with lyrics too coarse to print. Otherwise, I'm definitely not crazy about Donald J. Trump, and I am crazy about my wife. None of these things is a secret.

I have Facebook friends who hate baseball and others who think Trump gets a raw deal from the elitist press. But it's a veritable paradise of married bliss, because whatever else people share on Facebook, they don't share their naughty little sins. (Although my wife does have one friend who excoriates her ex-husband, and idiots have posted videos of themselves committing felonies.) Many women post suggestive photos of themselves seeking gullible men to "friend" them. But if you tag them as spam, they quit coming.

Anyway, I suspect Cambridge Analytica and its ballyhooed "psychographic targeting" are of very little concern to such persons. Indeed, the whole subject reminds me of the big kerfluffle over "subliminal advertising" during the 1970s. Supposedly, cunning advertisers could manipulate your mind by superimposing images into movies and TV programs too briefly for your conscious mind to recognize, but stimulating your salivary glands to drive you to the refreshments stand.

Theoretically then, interpolating brief snippets of "Triumph of the Will" into "The Simpsons" could influence people to get on board the Trump train. Except that the technique simply never worked on even the simplest level. Popcorn sales remained flat.

Similarly, what Cambridge Analytica calls its "Database of Truth," compiled by ransacking personal information improperly obtained from 50 million Facebook accounts, can supposedly "bypass 'individuals' cognitive defenses by appealing directly to their emotions' " — in the words of a lawsuit filed against the company — and by so doing cause them to vote against their interests.

Color me skeptical — kind of my personality type, actually. (My brother says we got that way by growing up in New Jersey, state motto: "Oh yeah, who says?" Except Swami Tommy picks the Mets to win the World Series every year, so what does he know?) Anyway, you can dress up trendy psychobabble in an upper class British accent, but it's still nonsense and wishful thinking.

Yes, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is both annoyingly smug and not particularly honest. But Facebook's main contribution during the 2016 electoral cycle had nothing to do with "psychographic targeting." Instead, it was helping Russian trolls spread fantastic lies about Hillary Clinton to targeted voters in the industrial Midwest (where, also, she neglected to campaign). ZIP codes and party registration were the key — the cyber-equivalent of the "Martin Luther King at a Communist Training School" billboards of yore.

Otherwise, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat got it right. The proximate driver of Trump's election "wasn't Zuckerberg's unreal kingdom; it wasn't even the Twitter platform where Trump struts and frets and rages daily. It was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news."

If you don't know that, you've no idea what happened.

As for the marketing geniuses at Facebook, with their sophisticated algorithms and "98 personal data points," what are they trying to sell me today? Tips for avoiding "Common Kindergarten Illnesses" and motorcycle insurance. No need to tinker with privacy settings. At my advanced age, I've become a cyber-mystery man; they haven't got a clue.

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