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Caseythoughts No surprise to anyone who has known me for awhile, or newer acquaintances to this column, that I am a self-confessed 'technophobe'. Translation: I have a healthy distrust (not quite fear/phobia, but a close proximity, within hailing distance) of the internet in general, the 'new' economy, social media and IOT (internet of things). Yes, I know I am using it now, and depend on email to transmit my column, but...

With the explosion of stories and hand-wringing about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and privacy issues, I could gloat about my distrust, or cluck like Chicken Little, but not simply about the Russians and our elections. It's so much deeper than that, and has several 'threads'.

I'm going to put forward in this edition some extended quotes from Wired, The New Yorker and the Financial Times (with adequate and fair attribution to each of the quotes) then connect these threads to a source which may mystify and surprise you: the argument of personal privacy and Facebbok runs through our own Cornell campus. Keep in mind this fascinating thought from the Letters to the Editor of the Financial Times on April 3, 2018:

'Facebook's users are not Mr. Zuckerberg's customers, they are his product. Facebook's platform is totally free for users. It makes its money by selling audiences to advertisers, much like free newspapers. His users are his audience, ergo his product. There's a saying that runs: "If the product is free, then you're the product." So...

New Yorker: "In 2012, without notice or permission, Facebook tweaked the feeds of nearly 700,000 of its users, showing one group more posts containing 'positive emotional content' and the other more 'negative emotional content'. Two years later, Facebook declassified the experiment and published the results. Users were livid, and, after that, Facebook either stopped conducting secret experiments or stopped to admitting to them. But the results of the experiment were clear: the people with happier feeds acted happier, and vice versa. The study's authors called it 'massive-scale emotional contagion'. Since then, social media has only grown in size and influence, and the persuasive tools available to advertisers, spies, politicians and propagandists have only become sharper."

Wired: "Since the beginning, Zuckerberg's ambition had been to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible. The business model was based on advertising, and advertising was insatiably hungry for people's time.' And (Wired): The way the Russians used the [Facebook] platform was neither a surprise or anomaly. They find 100 or 1,000 people who are angry and afraid and then use Facebook tools to advertise to get people into groups. That's exactly how Facebook was designed to be used."

Wired, again: "Maybe the most threatening comment came from Senator Diane Feinstein, the senior senator from Facebook's home state. 'You've created these platforms, and now they're being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it, OR WE WILL (caps mine)."

New Yorker: "In 2012, a Forbes reporter asked the creator of Reddit how the Founding Fathers might have reacted to Reddit. He replied: 'A bastion of free speech on the world wide web? I love to imagine that 'Common Sense' would have been a self-post on Reddit, by Thomas Paine, or actually a r/editor named T. Paine."

Financial Times Letter to Editor: "It is time to force apps to give their customers more information about how much of their data will be used and how. As with financial providers, apps should be required to send users regular statements detailing how their data has been employed and what the consequences have been. If your data were used to sell you something, you should know that and how much the app provider received as commission."

New Yorker: "Social media executives claim to transcend subjectivity, and they have designed their platforms to be feedback machines, giving us not what we claim to want, nor what might be good for us, but what we actually pay attention to."

Financial Times: "Accept that companies will not have your best interests at heart when their business models are tied to monetizing your data. Consumers must take charge and be engaged. Facebook's gaffes should encourage a more savvy group of users who learn how to protect themselves. After this week, there is no excuse for ignoring the warnings."

So, to sum up these quotes, we have psychological experiments on unwitting subjects via Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg's naivete (or nefarious intent, you may choose your poison here), angry people being used to feel that they are a part of an undefined group, Congress making noise about internet restrictions and regulations, while Tom Paine's rants might be questioned or edited (by the King?) in this day of 'free speech'. Which leads me to 'feedback machines' and 'monetizing data'.

Feedback machine? Monetizing data? Wait a minute... isn't that the modern way to describe public relations and advertising? Drumroll, please, and then perhaps Twilight Zone music: The Wayback Machine, please, Mr. Peabody; set the controls for Ithaca, Cornell, Class of '12 (that's 1912, kids).

His name was Edward L. Bernays, '12, and he came to Cornell at his father's command to study 'scientific farming', matriculating in 1908. Young Edward was miserable, according to 'The 100 Most Influential Cornellians'. He felt 'listless boredom', endured 'agonizing courses' and suffered 'professors who droned on'.
He wrote for the Cornell Countryman for a short time after graduation, but quickly returned to the Big Apple and was hired by the US Committee on Public Information which gave Americans their first officially sanctioned taste, in the years leading up to and during World War I, of what he unflinchingly and proudly called 'propaganda' (later becoming the title of his bestselling book in 1928).

He began, after the war, to develop the nascent field of public relations, although it was just as much molding public opinion and perceptions (civilian variations on the government's way of 'hating the Huns' during the war). Advertising had, of course, been around for awhile, but the idea that he could 'engineer consent' (his words) involved understanding social tastes and habits which he assessed through surveys and polls which he designed. The unconscious realm of human behavior, use of 'experts' and celebrity endorsements were all his ideas as we rolled into the Roaring 20's and the eventual Depression.

Examples: He set up debutantes on NYC street corners who smoked Lucky Strikes which he called 'torches of freedom', when it was considered uncouth for women to smoke in public. Voila, public perception of a woman smoking became if not positive, at least acceptable. Oh, yes, it sold a lot of Luckies. For a client who manufactured luggage, Bernays started a campaign with its central idea that a woman going on a weekend trip needed three changes of clothing. It sold a lot of luggage.

He set up panels of doctors (or men dressed like doctors?) in magazine advertising (and the new medium of radio) to convince caring and conscientious mothers to give their children nightly baths for their health. Sales of Ivory Soap soared. Guess who developed the advertising campaign for Dixie Cups? You guessed it: with plenty of expert scientific opinion on the sanitary and safety aspects of disposable cardboard drinking cups.

Did you know that men didn't wear wristwatches because they weren't considered masculine? Only women wore them prior to WWI. But Ingersoll hired Bernays to change that. Bernays knew from his friends in the War Department that in WWI trenches, the men wore pocket watches, struck a match to check the time and exposed themselves in the light of the match to enemy gunfire. Bernays convinced the War Department to issue wristwatches to officers with radium dials to be seen in the dark, and now it was the 'manly' thing to wear a wristwatch. (You can imagine the full page magazine ad for that, can't you?)

Bernays, upon his return to Cornell to speak to the 'School of Communications', said : 'It seems anyone can use the term [public relations] to try to make money, any nitwit or crook or anti-social person can use the name.' He wrote/spoke that in 1983 (Zuckerberg was yet to be born,right?), desiring to have Congress or states regulate and license the profession of public relations. He died in 1995.

The facts, as I see them, are that the gullibility and malleability of the human being in the modern, materialistic world, is open to manipulation and suggestion (no one seriously disputes this anymore, do they?). That, as the authors of the quotes which opened this column have put it, feeding certain information to a group of unsuspecting (read 'unsuspecting' liberally, to make a point) people, then feeding another group a different set of 'news' or 'information', analysis, expert feedback, or for that matter 'focus group', or self-identification, can change our perceptions of what we feel, what we need, what we want, what we believe, and how we fit in with others' who seem to have the same needs and wants as ourselves (as determined by luggage companies, soap companies, automobile companies, and of course political committees and the politicians who purport to 'listen' to what we have to say.).

I'm not being cynical about advertising or consumerism (I hear Howard Beall in 'Network' saying 'We'll tell you any s--- you want to hear'...), or for that matter capitalism. I'm a capitalist to my toes. But people who can and will benefit from our needs and wants have it in their little hearts to do everything they can to make me feel like I can think, feel, smell, spend and 'belong' to a group that thinks, feels, smells and spends just like me. It is their job, mantra and business plan to manipulate me, if they can, in whatever way they can. They're supposed to do that. It's in their corporate blood, so to speak.

And to throw mud and worse at Zuckerberg (I don't like him for more subtle reasons) is to ignore the closest manipulator of all, the person staring back at me from the mirror. And now, since I can't bear to look at my own thinking and reading habits (please tel me how many millions are NOT media literate and fall prey every day to news without at least questioning its source and angle) I will look to politicians (who use these 'tools' everyday as their hammer and scalpel) to regulate it all. Am I actually willing to let Albany or Washington DC to decide on what rules will prevail to 'protect' me from my own ignorance and immaturity (and their own individual politically motivated 'spin', of course). We can be swayed, so therefore we need to have our fire hose of information stifled (I'm sorry, did I mean sifted?) by government regulation. Regulated by whom, may I ask?

Thomas Paine would quite possibly have been banned by Reddit, or Breitbart, maybe even by a Facebook algorithm. I know my 1st Amendment rights are limited to keep me from shouting 'FIRE' in a crowded movie theater (a famous Supreme Court quote) but at the same time I must recognize that as a citizen and human I need to do my part to analyze, discuss, research and THINK about what is being presented to me, crowding my computer screen, angling for my attention, in the vast world of media as it continues to try to do what Bernays actually predicted years ago: to 'engineer consent'. And this thought was immortalized in 1923 in a book he published entitled 'Crystallizing Public Opinion'.

His spirit lives on in the form of advertising (Gee, even McLuhan comes to mind), opinions, desires and consumerism, not to mention current public 'debates (a misnomer these days, methinks) and the free flow of information, no matter how 'misinformed' it may be in the eyes of the beholder. But this free flow will also die (like kinks in a fire hose, eh?) if we let it be restricted by ignorance, shallow information which is not necessarily knowledge, or the intellectual laziness which leads us to accept everything (or nothing) as 'fact', and will result in a contagion of bad laws and ever-limited freedom of thought and expression.

In the immortal words of the just-passed Steven Bochko (of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue): "Be careful out there."

It's a jungle out there, and I fear we are becoming more and more lost in our quest for freedom and 'truth'. Take a moment... breathe... question. Always question.

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