Privacy advocates tried to explain that persuasion was just the tip of the iceberg. Commercial databases were juicy targets for spies and identity thieves, to say nothing of blackmail for people whose data-trails revealed socially risky sexual practices, religious beliefs, or political views.
Now we’re living through the techlash, and finally people are coming back to the privacy advocates, saying we were right all along; given enough surveillance, companies can sell us anything: Brexit, Trump, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and successful election bids for absolute bastards like Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban.
It’s great that the privacy-matters message is finally reaching a wider audience, and it’s exciting to think that we’re approaching a tipping point for indifference to privacy and surveillance.
But while the acknowledgment of the problem of Big Tech is most welcome, I am worried that the diagnosis is wrong.
The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.
Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.