How powerful is the ability to persuade? What would you give to have the ability to swing large groups of people to do your bidding? Forget superpowers for a minute and just think of the most influential people on the planet. Clearly, most of them have a great deal of money and institutional power. The President of the United States, Bill Gates, Vladimir Putin, all of these people have the ability to influence public policy, the state of politics, and the future of mankind.
Who else has influence over your life? Are there other people out there who possess the ability, through charm, intellect, or other means, to control your actions? There likely are. If you’re a fan of Penn & Teller’s lovely show Bullshit! then you’re predisposed to take what they have to say seriously.
How can we measure the most influential person on the planet? There are several ways to do so. Find who has the most friends on Facebook. Find whose Facebook feeds result in the highest number of shares, likes, and comments. Find the top Twitter users or the users who create the biggest waves on the Internet. Find websites that result in abnormally high links back to the site or references on the Internet.
It’s more likely than not that there are several super users out there on social media who wield disproportionately large amounts of influence. Many of these super users are likely rich and famous, but some of them may not be. Regardless, Big Data likely knows who these users are.
How powerful is the Internet on our culture? If you hear something over and over again, isn’t it likely that you’ll start to listen after a while? If people who you’re predisposed to trust start telling a unified message, then you’re more likely to get on board with the call to action.
There is no overstating the power that Mark Zuckerberg wields over our society. You know that he already identified the Facebook super users years ago. Is it out of the question for him to ask or force these super users to support a political campaign? Or to get behind a political movement? Or to refrain from speaking on a social issue? Do you think that Twitter or any other social media is any different?
Social media super users potentially carry more power than our politicians and other figures of traditional power. You follow people on social media because you like their image. You feel like you know them. Artificial social connections established via online networking manufacture ersatz trust relationships between strangers. In other words, it’s a twisted way of creating trust. Through trust you can manipulate people.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you support saving the environment and all of the super users get behind an anti-carbon initiative, then you have nothing to complain about. But what happens when all of the super users start supporting a candidate for the White House? Can we really trust their judgement? Is there opportunity for graft and corruption? How would it feel to be manipulated via your online social media ‘friends’ into supporting spineless politicians who you’d normally never vote for?
A small part of the issue is the human proclivity to worship celebrities. Whether it be established royalty or Hollywood moguls, humans adore trashy tabloid stories. Our culture eats up pop culture news. This is not a new phenomenon.
Another part of the issue is that Big Data now has the power to scientifically determine whom to target and bribe into endorsing certain viewpoints. Corporations and the government can use social media and your search history to unpack how you think. If they can learn how you think and decide then they can manufacture messages designed to get you on board with a new idea.
New ideas can be great. Going to the moon was a new idea. So was going to Iraq.
It becomes increasingly difficult to balance liberty with technology. Democracy loses much of its meaning when the government and corporations can create targeted messages designed to sway vast numbers of citizens to think in certain manners. Of course, propaganda is nothing new and governments have been doing this for years. The entire private advertising industry is designed around classic theories of government propaganda.
The difference is a matter of degree. Technology is around us all the time. You carry a phone on you. Televisions are everywhere. It’s no longer just a poster of Uncle Sam. Cable news networks spew various messages at your 24/7. We, the people, eat these messages up.
Before you say, “It won’t happen to me,” just consider your parents. How many old people used to be free thinking, rational people and then at some point just start spouting cable news headlines? It’s so frequent that people laugh about how their parents became de facto anchors for Fox and CNN. The only difference between you and the elderly is that your rational mind suppresses a great deal of your prejudices.
But the effects are still there. Constant bombardments of targeted advertising change you. Over time, you start to think in new directions. Previously crazy thoughts appear rational.
Social media is here to stay. Our society signed up for social media before it understood its consequences. Now, we have more data on the human condition than ever before. Governments, corporations, and other entities use this data in order manipulate the world to their own ends. Never has it been more of a struggle to maintain our liberty and freedom of thought than in modern society.