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Saturday, December 29, 2018


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?


Dean said...

I'm no expert -- I am a librarian, about which more to come -- but I think you're confusing personalized ad placement with the 'bot influence issue. Here's a decent story about the latter, post-'16 election: I detect two dynamics at work: first, 'bots exemplify the maxim, "If you repeat a lie enough times, people will grow to believe it." A 'bot can spread a lie at no cost, and many people are willing to accept as fact the message they most frequently encounter. Second, 'bots can skew a conversation by promoting divisive messages that will prompt some people to cling in response to more extreme views than they might otherwise have embraced. Put another way, 'bots troll.

As for ad placement -- here's where my being a librarian comes into play -- consider that I spend a lot of time searching for myriad topics in which I am not personally interested. I like to think that if more people engaged in this behavior, even if it isn't a function of their jobs, the algorithms for ad placement would ever so slightly derail. Even so, I do see ads related to my actual recent purchases (but why if I just purchased a screwdriver would I want to purchase another screwdriver?) and ads that I assume are a response to the demographic to which the algorithm has assigned me. For example, on occasion I'm invited to explore available Single Russian Girls. I suppose lots of American men, married (as I am) or single, and hovering around 60-years-old, might take the bait. I don't, but I assume the cost of placing the ad is worth a slim percentage of clicks.

Jerry Fresia said...

I'm not sure of the lingo but I think it works something like this and I'm only going by the $30 ads that I've placed for my painting workshop in St. Petersburg, Fl in February.

Let's say I write a post claiming that Bernie is the only candidate that has any chance of addressing one's material needs (for starters). The rest are establishment corporate hacks, I say. I may specifically say that Sen. Harris is a good example. She's is hypocritical in the extreme and given CA's new and improved position on Super Tuesday, it is imperative to vote for anyone other than Harris in the CA primary and preferably Bernie. Also I may list organizations that one can contribute to that support Bernie.

That's my post. It will wind up on the "time lines" of people who "like" my facebook page and who have sought my "friendship." (I think that is how it goes but you get the idea). But I can also "boost" my post and when I do that I give FB a budget, and a length of time for the a campaign. Let's say $100 for 7 days. And then, the key part, I create a profile (people who live in CA or specific cities in CA, age, and a slew of various preferences and demographic information that FB makes available to me that helps me target specific voters). Then (and here is where I'm not sure of the lingo) they make this post available to people who fit this profile (exactly how I'm not sure) and I get data on how many people see it, how many click on it or refer it to someone else which then gives me additional data on how to boost (target my audience) the post again.

s. wallerstein said...

You say that you buy pijamas in Amazon and the next day ads for pijamas appear in the pages you click on.

They're cleverer than that. Let's say that you have Gmail, as I do. When you write your sister that the next afternoon you're going to go shopping for pijamas, they read your Gmail and send you ads for pijamas in the mall nearest your home.

Besides that, since they follow all your Google searches and everything you say in blogs and all your Gmails or Hotmails and all the pages you read, they compile a profile and they already know that you are the type of person in sociological and psychological terms who is likely to sleep in pijamas and in pijamas of a certain color and of a certain style. And who is likely to stop in for a beer after buying pijamas and hence, they send you an ad for a beer which fits your profile too, etc., etc.

Graham said...

If the question is "Is it fake" I would guess a large part of it is:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

But it still drives business and investment anyway, since some of it is real.

Jerry Fresia said...

PS Your first paragraph is very instructive. Thanks.