Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Facebook and Division by Data in the Digital Age

(Image: theodysseyonline.com)

“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)

There was a time not too long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools, local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.

It was not that people gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives, and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not have otherwise had.

I am not suggesting that we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also civil and respectful.

The internet, with its ability to turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through diverse and shared experiences on a scale unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.

In country after country, social media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.

Nobody seems willing to entertain or discuss a point of view slightly different from their own. We have lost the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not share our finite and inflexible worldviews.

It’s as if we have all stopped talking to each other, and now only talk at each other. What happened?

To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live, work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and viewpoints.

Even online we have retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email and social media.

While it is true income and educational segregation have been in part responsible for our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol. Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.

Every advertiser and marketer has always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command, even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on an individual level.

Like most innovations, this type of data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking for it.

Sounds great in theory, but nobody considered the dangerous and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive algorithms that now power every website, internet service and mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us shoes and diapers.

What started as an advertising tool has now grown into an information arms race with numerous companies accumulating more and more personal data on each of us without any transparency, independent or third party oversight. People do not have the ability to opt-out and nobody has a clear idea of how this data is being used or with whom it is being shared.

Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by governments, it has greatly increased the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and influence behaviour of individuals and groups.

We need look no further than the 2016 US election. We know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to target, test and fine-tune messages that spread various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.

It is important to understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving, Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India. The targeting is both granular and precise.

In addition, you can exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).

This is what I refer to as division by data, when data is used to segment and sub-segment every section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide “what” to show people.

What this means is that what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix recommendations and even Google search.

Ask a liberal and a conservative friend to type in the exact same search query, e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the results and ‘facts’ they get are. I urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr. Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.”

Consider that Facebook has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users worldwide and Google is what the world relies on to search for news, information and facts, and both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.

This is where the notion of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects and dividing them into ever smaller groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’ uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might manage to increase ad sales, but we also increase societal divisions by reducing the ability to find common ground on issues.

In the digital age, we have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared experiences that human beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to diversity of thought and open-mindedness.

This is a solvable problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

I am Not Applauding, Hollywood




 (Image: Western Free Press / Artist: Sabo)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 
Martin Luther King Jr. 

The mainstream media and coastal Americans are gushing about the Golden Globes this morning. People are lauding Oprah’s speech and pushing her to run for President in 2020.

I admire Oprah and she gave one hell of a speech. I agree with her that “speaking our truth is the most powerful tool we have…” but the problem lies in the fact that Hollywood has always hidden its truth, and refused to speak out, while being the first group to point fingers at everyone else.

Oprah’s brilliant speech and its full-throated celebration by the very people who have always had a voice and the power to speak their truth masks a deep hypocrisy and glosses over their lack of courage. Until they are willing to call out their cowardice we cannot truly move forward and ensure that the voiceless are no longer suffering in the shadows.

For me, therein is the problem with celebrating the Hollywood stars jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon now that it is in vogue and there are no risks associated with speaking their truth. Is this not same truth they did not speak when it might have cost them an acting role or a seven figure salary?

Rosa Parks did not sit on that seat in order to become a trending hashtag. Mahatma Gandhi did not embark on fasts unto death to write a bestseller and Mother Teresa never wanted movies made about her life. These icons of history did what they did because they were tired of injustice and were willing to lose EVERYTHING to fight for all those who did not have a voice or could not fight.

All we are doing by applauding Hollywood is applauding spinelessness, and telling future generations that it is okay to wait to speak your truth only when it is convenient, only when it will not cost you anything personally, and only when it will not harm your career.

I am incensed that people like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek chose to stay silent. By doing so they made a decision that their careers, successes and fame were more important than telling this horrific truth.

I am not talking about when any of these actresses were starting out, living off someone’s couch and likely working two jobs just to make ends meet, having no voice or recourse. I am upset that when they became stars, powerful women in their own right, after they had paid their dues and earned their way up the ladder, and when they had the choice to share their truth – they still chose to stay silent.

By choosing silence they chose to leave in the shadows the millions of voiceless women who are taken advantage of and abused every day in their industry.

Meryl Streep felt compelled to speak out about the way Trump belittled a handicapped reporter, she cried, but never once did she feel the need to address the casting couch and horror stories of misogynistic, degrading and predatory behaviour of people she was close to and had worked with for years. I was deeply disappointed.

Make no mistake. I am glad that we are finally having this conversation and that a spotlight finally shines on the horrific experiences women across industries have suffered and had to endure, and still settle for lesser advancements than men less able or talented, purely because of their gender.

But for us to turn this moment into a lasting movement, one that results in real generational behavioral change, we need courageous people to carry the torch, not opportunists looking to burnish their own celebrity and trend on Twitter.

Courage is taking the plank out of your own eye before taking the speck out of someone else’s. I have not seen courage in Hollywood.

The Time’s Up announcement of a legal defense fund for underrepresented groups is a wonderful thing, but here is the thing about overcoming the greatest personal adversity: we cannot help people with handouts or defense funds alone. We need to inspire them to find their voice and find the courage to come forward. The only way to do that is through our own actions.

If the traditionally powerful have rarely been courageous, rarely put everything on the line, rarely spoken out against gross injustice, then how can we expect the single mother, the catering manager, the gaffer, the set decorator or the location scout to come forward and risk losing everything to do the right thing?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Why Sally Yates, Colin Kaepernick and the Hamilton Cast Were Wrong


“A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it.”
Alistair Cooke (British-American journalist)

First, I want to be clear that I am aligned with the causes that each of these individuals felt the need to protest, but completely disagree with the manner in which each chose to do it. Their actions showed a lack of maturity, social decorum and professionalism, and these things have never been more important than now, when we have a President who completely ignores them.

I would like to discuss each individual event and the reasons for my disagreement because each one pertains to a different, but important, point.


First, I applaud that a cast member tried to dissuade the audience from booing, and stated that this was not a personal repudiation, but a plea for diversity and inclusiveness.

Two, Mr. Pence deserves credit for waiting in the wings to listen to their message and later adding that he was not offended as a supporter of free speech, but that he would leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.” (Source: Washington Post).

Now to my point of disagreement: there was an argument thrown around in the mainstream media, in the cast’s defense, saying that theater has historically been a venue for protest and dissent. This is true; but it conveniently ignores one vital fact – that protest has always transpired between the curtain’s rise and fall and not after the performance has ended.

Shakespeare often used his art as a powerful weapon for dissent, but always constrained his message within the substance and subject of his play. I am not aware of a single instance in which he or his cast showed up after curtain call to give the Queen or King of England a lecture.

The cast also failed to respect the fact that Mr. Pence was there as a private citizen, accompanied by his niece and nephew, and not his capacity as an elected official. This was not the time or place to raise their protest.

I have similar issue with the way in which Sally Yates (the acting Attorney General) behaved.

To be clear, I fully agree with Ms. Yates stance against President Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban and do not believe such a ban will help make America safer. My issue is with the way in which she took action. The professional thing for her to do would have been to resign on moral grounds.

Ms. Yates admits as much in her internal letter. She states that the legality of the order was not in question; it was cleared by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), whose job is to rule on legality. She goes on to say that her main issue was a moral one, driven by “…statements made by an administration or it surrogates close in time to the issuance of an Executive Order that may bear on the order’s purpose. And importantly, it does not address whether any policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just.” (Source: “Letter from SallyYates” via NYTimes).

Ms. Yates had every right to protest the order by resigning, but it was reckless of her to refuse to fulfil her job responsibilities. More worryingly, she signalled to all Justice Department staff that they too were free to disobey direct orders from the President based on personal whim, rather than compel them to always act professionally and follow the correct channels and protocols when in disagreement.

Morality is a grey area and that is why in a professional setting such behaviour sets a dangerous precedent. We must consider the flip side of government employees taking unilateral action. For the short period that President Trump’s travel ban was in effect, there were reports of US Customs agents detaining people not covered under the order. Like Ms. Yates, these men and women also justified their unprofessional behaviour as a moral obligation to protect the nation.

For this reason we must never defend Ms. Yates actions, or those of the rogue customs agents; both failed to live up to the level of the professionalism we must demand of all elected and non-elected officials. In a democracy we must always use the courts and the many other systems of checks and balances we have to fight when we disagree, but must never circumvent them or make exceptions (even when we are right) because this is exactly how civilised societies collapse.

This brings me to Colin Kaepernick. I care deeply about the cause he has been protesting and have researched and written about the gross inequality that exists between Blacks and Whites in America, even today, one hundred and fifty plus years after slavery was abolished.

Kaepernick is fighting to bring awareness to an important issue, but his chosen method serves to alienate and divide people because he has gone about it in a wrong-headed fashion. The issue for me is not whether he is disrespecting the flag or people who served, but that his actions were unprofessional.

When Kaepernick and his fellow players put on their uniforms, they cease being private citizens and become professional representatives of an organisation, who are being paid a salary to perform a job. Sports fields and offices are not places for personal protests and must never be used as such, no matter how worthy the cause.

Just imagine if everyone decided to take the same liberty and start using the professional environment to protest personal causes.

That said, there is nothing stopping Kaepernick from using his off-field celebrity to raise awareness for this cause. He can and should use his star power to gather support and get people involved in finding solutions, but never feel like he has a right to do it while wearing the uniform, or at the office, where he is just one member of a team of professionals.

And we must never justify or condone someone’s actions based on the weight of their cause or our agreement with it. What is at issue in all these instances is not the moral weight of the cause, but the preservation of the rules that govern and protect our way of life. 
Adherence to these rules is solely what underpins the health of a free society. For democracy to thrive everyone needs to respect the rules and maintain a level of professional decorum.

At a time when we have a man who ignores all of these rules, occupying the highest office in the land, it is even more important that we set the example for our children and lead the way, never lowering ours principles or high standards. 

The future of American democracy depends on it.