My way of thinking about something that puzzles me is to try, in my mind, to explain it to an imaginary audience that I figure as ignorant of what I am explaining but very smart and insistent. Sort of like really bright kids. So I start at the very beginning with something I know my imaginary audience is familiar with and understands already, and then proceed step by step until I hit a snag – a step I cannot make clear. At that point, I pause and try to puzzle it out. If I do, I continue on, in my mind. If I am stuck, I know I do not really understand whatever it is that I am explaining, so I stop. Once the whole story is clear in my mind, each step simple and transparent, I am ready to write, and at that point I just tell the story as fast as my two fingers can type. That is how I have written books on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the economic theories of Karl Marx, on liberalism, on the theory of the state, and on university education. That is why I enjoy my morning walks. Each walk is an uninterrupted one hour interior monologue to an imaginary audience.
Today, I want to try this method here with respect to a subject that I do not fully understand, namely how media giants like FaceBook and Google and Twitter and SnapChat make their money, and how people use phony identities [bots?] to carry out scams of various sorts, sometimes, but not exclusively, for political purposes. I am not concerned here with whether this is a good or bad thing, just with how it works. I should warn you that I am flying blind here, because I do not ever use Twitter and SnapChat, and I only check FaceBook to read my son’s posts there. I am counting on the readers of this blog to know vastly more than I on the subject, and to correct me when I go wrong or carry on beyond where I get stuck.
Let me begin with pre-history, namely with newspapers and magazines. A newspaper makes money in two ways: by selling copies to readers, and by selling advertising space in its pages. A newspaper that sells lots of copies can claim to have a large readership [a claim that may actually be difficult to confirm, of course], and on that basis can charge lots of money for ads. Newspaper advertising can be a trifle deceptive. When I was in high school, Mr. Zissowitz had us bring in copies of New York area newspapers so we could count the number of column inches of ads. The New York Daily News was the big winner. But the surprise was that the classified ads at the back generated much more income per page than the flashy department store ads in the front of the newspaper.
FaceBook and Google don’t cost anything to use. But the companies make lots of money -- $40 billion for FaceBook and $110 billion for Google, both in 2017. How do they do it? By selling advertising. So far, so good. Now I wander off into the weeds. As I understand it [is this right?], such companies are able to keep track in incredible detail of the interests, preferences, purchases, friendships, etc. of literally billions of people. And they can offer to an advertiser the opportunity to place its ads only on the digital pages of people whose past surfing history in some way or other indicates that they would be interested in the advertiser’s products. So I buy pajamas from Amazon, and the next day pajama ads appear on pages I click to. [Is this correct?]
The key here is the specificity and scope of the data, and its accessibility to the companies selling the ad space. It is one thing, if you are the advertising director of a pricey Caribbean tourist getaway, to buy ads in a travel magazine or an upscale fashion magazine and hope you are reaching people looking to vacation somewhere warm. It is quite another thing to have your ads placed on all and only the pages of people who have recently Googled “Caribbean vacation.” And so forth.
Enter the scammers. Because all of this is digital, hence utterly impersonal, although possibly also very private, it is dead easy to impersonate someone with totally different interests or financial resources from oneself. It is also dead easy to create phony people who click endlessly on certain sites, thereby creating the false impression that there is real interest out there for a product that in fact very few real people want to buy.
So, an entire digital world can come into being that is a distorted representation of the real world, or even no representation at all of the real world, distorted or not.
OK, at about this point in my walk I grind to a halt because I do not really understand how this relates to the sort of thing that is done by people trying to influence elections.
Would anyone like to join me on my walk and continue the explanation?