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FTR #946 In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon, Part 2

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This broad­cast was record­ed in one, 60-minute seg­ment [5].

Peter Thiel [6]

Peter Thiel

Intro­duc­tion: In FTR #718 [7] (record­ed on Inde­pen­dence Day week­end of 2010), we not­ed that the new social medium–Facebook-might very well be the oppo­site of the lib­er­at­ing, empow­er­ing enti­ty many believed it to be.

On the con­trary, we said–it received finan­cial back­ing from the CIA [8], per­mits unprece­dent­ed gath­er­ing and data­bas­ing of users’ per­son­al infor­ma­tion, and might very well be a “panopticon”–a type of prison in which the interned can nev­er see his or her jail­ers, but their keep­ers can see the interned at all times.

In par­tic­u­lar, we not­ed the promi­nent posi­tion of major Face­book investor Peter Thiel [9] in “Mon­do Zucker­berg.” Of Ger­man (and prob­a­ble I.G. Far­ben) ori­gins, we opined that Thiel was Under­ground Reich. Opposed to democ­ra­cy because he feels it is inim­i­cal to wealth cre­ation and does­n’t believe women should be allowed to vote, Thiel has now emerged as one of the most promi­nent of Don­ald Trump’s sup­port­ers, tran­si­tion team cre­ators and influ­en­tial pol­i­cy wonks.

Where­as we explored the “vir­tu­al panop­ti­con” con­cept of Face­book with a ques­tion mark in 2010, we now feel affir­ma­tive­ly on the issue.

A very impor­tant sto­ry from New York mag­a­zine sets forth Face­book’s role [10] in the just-con­clud­ed elec­tion.

A Panopticon [11]

A Panop­ti­con

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and pow­er make it effec­tive­ly the only one that mat­ters. And, boy, does it mat­ter. At the risk of being hyper­bol­ic, I think there are few events over the last decade more sig­nif­i­cant than the social network’s whole­sale acqui­si­tion of the tra­di­tion­al func­tions of news media (not to men­tion the polit­i­cal-par­ty appa­ra­tus). Trump’s ascen­dan­cy is far from the first mate­r­i­al con­se­quence of Facebook’s con­quer­ing inva­sion of our social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal lives, but it’s still a brac­ing reminder of the extent to which the social net­work is able to upend exist­ing struc­ture and trans­form soci­ety — and often not for the bet­ter. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enor­mous audi­ence, and the mech­a­nisms of dis­tri­b­u­tion on which the site relies — i.e., the emo­tion­al­ly charged activ­i­ty of shar­ing, and the show-me-more-like-this feed­back loop of the news feed algo­rithm — makes it the only site to sup­port a gen­uine­ly lucra­tive mar­ket in which shady pub­lish­ers arbi­trage traf­fic [12] by entic­ing peo­ple off of Face­book and onto ad-fes­tooned web­sites, using sto­ries that are alter­nate­ly made up, incor­rect, exag­ger­at­ed beyond all rela­tion­ship to truth, or all three. . . .

trump-hat [13]” . . . . And at the heart of the prob­lem, any­way, is not the moti­va­tions of the hoax­ers but the struc­ture of social media itself. Tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, invig­o­rat­ed by insur­gent out­sider can­di­dates and anger at per­ceived polit­i­cal ene­mies, were served up or shared emo­tion­al­ly charged news sto­ries about the can­di­dates [14], because Facebook’s sort­ing algo­rithm under­stood from expe­ri­ence that they were seek­ing such sto­ries. Many of those sto­ries were lies, or ‘par­o­dies,’ but their appear­ance and place­ment in a news feed were no dif­fer­ent from those of any pub­lish­er with a com­mit­ment to, you know, not lying. As those peo­ple and their fol­low­ers clicked on, shared, or oth­er­wise engaged with those sto­ries — which they did, because Trump dri­ves engage­ment extreme­ly bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engage­ment-dri­ving feed­back loop reached the heights of Face­book itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occa­sion after fir­ing the small team of edi­to­r­i­al employ­ees tasked with pass­ing news judg­ment. . . .

” . . . . Some­thing like 170 mil­lion peo­ple in North Amer­i­ca use Face­book every day, a num­ber that’s not only sev­er­al orders of mag­ni­tude larg­er than even the most opti­mistic cir­cu­la­tion reck­on­ings of major news out­lets but also about one-and-a-half times as many peo­ple as vot­ed on Tues­day. Forty-four per­cent of all adults in the Unit­ed States say they get news from Face­book [15] . . . ”

Symp­to­matic of Face­book’s fil­ter of what its users see con­cerns the social medi­um’s recent non-cov­er­age [16] of the wom­en’s march:

” . . . . We don’t usu­al­ly post on Pan­do at the week­end, but this is too top­i­cal and too shame­ful to wait until Mon­day. As you cer­tain­ly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton [17] in protest of Don­ald Trump. The main event is in DC, where some­thing close to 500,000 pro­test­ers of all gen­ders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chica­go, New York and around the world. Includ­ing Antarc­ti­ca [18].

You cer­tain­ly know this because the protest march is the top sto­ry on every major news out­let, and because updates and pho­tos from the event are flood­ing your Twit­ter and Face­book feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trend­ing news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed [19]]
And here’s its trend­ing pol­i­tics feed…
[see image of trend­ing pol­i­tics fee [20]]
Notice any­thing miss­ing?

Like, say, a half mil­lion women.

In case you think I’m see­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….”

Face­book has changed [21] its algo­rithm, no longer fac­tor­ing in “likes” and oth­er per­son­al pref­er­ences in deter­min­ing its news feed.

This, how­ev­er, does not bode as well as Face­book would like us to believe. Face­book has pro­mot­ed, among oth­ers, Camp­bell Brown [22], to an impor­tant posi­tion in struc­tur­ing its news feed:  ” . . . . Brown has long­stand­ing ties not just to the tra­di­tion­al news media, but also to con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics, although she describes her­self as a polit­i­cal inde­pen­dent. She is a close per­son­al friend of Bet­sy DeVos, the Repub­li­can megadonor who is Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nee for Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary [23], and is mar­ried to Dan Senor, a for­mer top advi­sor to Mitt Rom­ney who also served as spokesper­son for the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sion­al Author­i­ty in the wake of the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq. . . .

. . . . And along­side her main­stream media expe­ri­ence, Brown is famil­iar with the world of non-tra­di­tion­al news out­lets spring­ing up online. In 2014, she found­ed a non­prof­it news site, The 74, which bills itself as non­par­ti­san but which crit­ics have said func­tions as advo­ca­cy jour­nal­ism, tilt­ed in favor of char­ter schools and against teach­ers’ unions. The site was launched with mon­ey from donors includ­ing the foun­da­tion run by DeVos, Trump’s pro­posed Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary. When the nom­i­na­tion was announced, Brown said she would recuse her­self from The 74’s cov­er­age of DeVos. . .”  

Brown is joined by Tuck­er Bounds [24], a for­mer John McCain advis­er [25] and spokesman for the McCain/Palin cam­paign.

Exem­pli­fy­ing the ter­ri­fy­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of the vir­tu­al panop­ti­con, we exam­ine the nexus of Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca [26], its prin­ci­pal investors, Robert and Rebekah Mer­cer and Steve Ban­non, a key mem­ber of the fir­m’s board of direc­tors and a polit­i­cal guru to Rebekah. ” . . . . For sev­er­al years, a data firm even­tu­al­ly hired by the Trump cam­paign, Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, has been using Face­book as a tool to build psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files that rep­re­sent some 230 mil­lion adult Amer­i­cans. A spin­off of a British con­sult­ing com­pa­ny and some­time-defense con­trac­tor known for its coun­tert­er­ror­ism ‘psy ops’ work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seed­ing the social net­work with per­son­al­i­ty quizzes. Respon­dents — by now hun­dreds of thou­sands of us, most­ly female and most­ly young but enough male and old­er for the firm to make infer­ences about oth­ers with sim­i­lar behav­iors and demo­graph­ics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Face­book, gains access to their pro­files and real names.

“Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca worked on the ‘Leave’ side of the Brex­it cam­paign. In the Unit­ed States it takes only Repub­li­cans as clients: Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz in the pri­maries, Mr. Trump in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Cam­bridge is report­ed­ly backed by Robert Mer­cer [27], a hedge fund bil­lion­aire and a major Repub­li­can donor; a key board mem­ber is Stephen K. Ban­non, the head of Bre­it­bart News who became Mr. Trump’s cam­paign chair­man and is set to be his chief strate­gist in the White House. . .

” . . . . Their [the Mer­cers] data firm, Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, was hired by the Cruz cam­paign. They switched to sup­port Trump short­ly after he clinched the nom­i­na­tion, and he even­tu­al­ly hired Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, as well. Their top polit­i­cal guru is Steve Ban­non, the for­mer Bre­it­bart News chair­man and White House chief strate­gist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s cam­paign man­ag­er Kellyanne Con­way, who also has a senior role in the White House. They nev­er speak to the press and hard­ly ever even release a pub­lic state­ment. Like Trump him­self, they’ve flout­ed the stan­dard play­book for how things are done in pol­i­tics. . . .”

Ban­non’s influ­ence [28] on Rebekah Mer­cer is par­tic­u­lar­ly strong: ” . . . Anoth­er of the Repub­li­can oper­a­tives described Ban­non as the ‘Obi-Wan Keno­bi’ to Rebekah Mer­cer, and a third was even more point­ed: ‘Sven­gali.’ Ban­non is ‘real­ly, real­ly, real­ly influ­en­tial’ with Mer­cer, said the for­mer Bre­it­bart employ­ee. The Mer­cers, the for­mer employ­ee said, made their wish­es known through Ban­non, who would some­times cite the company’s finan­cial back­ers as a rea­son for Bre­it­bart not to do a sto­ry. Ban­non didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about this. . . .”

In turn, the influ­ence [29] of Steve Ban­non with­in the Face­book vir­tu­al panop­ti­con is even more sin­is­ter con­sid­er­ing Ban­non’s polit­i­cal out­look: ” . . . . But, said the source, who request­ed anonymi­ty to speak can­did­ly about Ban­non, ‘There are some things he’s only going to share with peo­ple who he’s tight with and who he trusts.’

Bannon’s read­ings tend to have one thing in com­mon: the view that tech­nocrats have put West­ern civ­i­liza­tion on a down­ward tra­jec­to­ry and that only a shock to the sys­tem can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apoc­a­lyp­tic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own pub­lic remarks over the years—a sense that human­i­ty is at a hinge point in his­to­ry. . . .”

One of the influ­ences on Ban­non is Cur­tis Yarvin, aka Men­cius Mold­bug, who has actu­al­ly opened a backchan­nel advi­so­ry con­nec­tion to the White House: ” . . . . Before he emerged on the polit­i­cal scene, an obscure Sil­i­con Val­ley com­put­er pro­gram­mer with ties to Trump backer and Pay­Pal co-founder Peter Thiel was explain­ing his behav­ior. Cur­tis Yarvin, the self-pro­claimed ‘neo­re­ac­tionary’ who blogs under the name ‘Men­cius Mold­bug,’ attract­ed a fol­low­ing in 2008 when he pub­lished a wordy trea­tise assert­ing, among oth­er things, that ‘non­sense is a more effec­tive orga­niz­ing tool than the truth.’ When the orga­niz­er of a com­put­er sci­ence con­fer­ence can­celed Yarvin’s appear­ance fol­low­ing an out­cry over his blog­ging under his nom de web, Ban­non took note: Bre­it­bart News decried the act of cen­sor­ship in an arti­cle about the programmer-blogger’s dis­missal.

Moldbug’s dense, dis­cur­sive mus­ings on history—‘What’s so bad about the Nazis?’ he asks in one 2008 post [30] that con­demns the Holo­caust but ques­tions the moral supe­ri­or­i­ty of the Allies—include a belief in the util­i­ty of spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion that now looks like a tem­plate for Trump’s approach to truth. ‘To believe in non­sense is an unforge­able [sic] demon­stra­tion of loy­al­ty. It serves as a polit­i­cal uni­form. And if you have a uni­form, you have an army,’ he writes in a May 2008 post [31].It’s been a while since I post­ed any­thing real­ly con­tro­ver­sial and offen­sive here,’ he begins in a July 25, 2007, post [32] explain­ing why he asso­ciates democ­ra­cy with ‘war, tyran­ny, destruc­tion and pover­ty.’

Mold­bug, who does not do inter­views and could not be reached for this sto­ry, has report­ed­ly opened up a line to the White House, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Ban­non and his aides through an inter­me­di­ary, accord­ing to a source. Yarvin said he has nev­er spo­ken with Ban­non. . . .”

After dis­cussing Face­book’s new AI tech­nol­o­gy [33] being employed to search users’ pho­tos, the pro­gram con­cludes with the shift of Sil­i­con Val­ley mon­ey [34] to the GOP.

Pro­gram High­lights Include: 

1. A very impor­tant sto­ry from New York mag­a­zine sets forth Face­book’s role in the just-con­clud­ed elec­tion.

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and pow­er make it effec­tive­ly the only one that mat­ters. And, boy, does it mat­ter. At the risk of being hyper­bol­ic, I think there are few events over the last decade more sig­nif­i­cant than the social network’s whole­sale acqui­si­tion of the tra­di­tion­al func­tions of news media (not to men­tion the polit­i­cal-par­ty appa­ra­tus). Trump’s ascen­dan­cy is far from the first mate­r­i­al con­se­quence of Facebook’s con­quer­ing inva­sion of our social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal lives, but it’s still a brac­ing reminder of the extent to which the social net­work is able to upend exist­ing struc­ture and trans­form soci­ety — and often not for the bet­ter. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enor­mous audi­ence, and the mech­a­nisms of dis­tri­b­u­tion on which the site relies — i.e., the emo­tion­al­ly charged activ­i­ty of shar­ing, and the show-me-more-like-this feed­back loop of the news feed algo­rithm — makes it the only site to sup­port a gen­uine­ly lucra­tive mar­ket in which shady pub­lish­ers arbi­trage traf­fic [12] by entic­ing peo­ple off of Face­book and onto ad-fes­tooned web­sites, using sto­ries that are alter­nate­ly made up, incor­rect, exag­ger­at­ed beyond all rela­tion­ship to truth, or all three. . . .

” . . . . And at the heart of the prob­lem, any­way, is not the moti­va­tions of the hoax­ers but the struc­ture of social media itself. Tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, invig­o­rat­ed by insur­gent out­sider can­di­dates and anger at per­ceived polit­i­cal ene­mies, were served up or shared emo­tion­al­ly charged news sto­ries about the can­di­dates [14], because Facebook’s sort­ing algo­rithm under­stood from expe­ri­ence that they were seek­ing such sto­ries. Many of those sto­ries were lies, or ‘par­o­dies,’ but their appear­ance and place­ment in a news feed were no dif­fer­ent from those of any pub­lish­er with a com­mit­ment to, you know, not lying. As those peo­ple and their fol­low­ers clicked on, shared, or oth­er­wise engaged with those sto­ries — which they did, because Trump dri­ves engage­ment extreme­ly bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engage­ment-dri­ving feed­back loop reached the heights of Face­book itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occa­sion after fir­ing the small team of edi­to­r­i­al employ­ees tasked with pass­ing news judg­ment. . . .

” . . . . Some­thing like 170 mil­lion peo­ple in North Amer­i­ca use Face­book every day, a num­ber that’s not only sev­er­al orders of mag­ni­tude larg­er than even the most opti­mistic cir­cu­la­tion reck­on­ings of major news out­lets but also about one-and-a-half times as many peo­ple as vot­ed on Tues­day. Forty-four per­cent of all adults in the Unit­ed States say they get news from Face­book [15] . . . ”

“Don­ald Trump Won Because of Face­book” by Max Read; New York Mag­a­zine; 11/09/2016. [10]

A close and — to pun­dits, jour­nal­ists, and Democ­rats — unex­pect­ed vic­to­ry like Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump’s is always overde­ter­mined, and no one par­tic­u­lar thing pushed Trump over the edge on Tues­day night. His cho­sen party’s late­ly increas­ing open­ness to explic­it white nation­al­ism, the still-recent glob­al-scale fail­ure of the lib­er­al eco­nom­ic con­sen­sus, the appar­ent­ly deep-seat­ed misog­y­ny and racism of the Amer­i­can elec­torate, Hillary Clinton’s mul­ti­ple short­com­ings as a can­di­date, or even the last-minute inter­ven­tion of FBI direc­tor James Comey might each have been, on its own, suf­fi­cient to hand the elec­tion to a man who is, by any reck­on­ing, a dan­ger­ous and unpre­dictable big­ot.

Still, it can be clar­i­fy­ing to iden­ti­fy the con­di­tions that allowed access to the high­est lev­els of the polit­i­cal syste a man so far out­side what was, until recent­ly, the polit­i­cal main­stream that not a sin­gle for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date from his own par­ty would endorse him. In this case, the con­di­tion was: Face­book.

To some extent I’m using “Face­book” here as a stand-in for the half-dozen large and influ­en­tial mes­sage boards and social-media plat­forms where Amer­i­cans now con­gre­gate to dis­cuss pol­i­tics, but Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and pow­er make it effec­tive­ly the only one that mat­ters. And, boy, does it mat­ter. At the risk of being hyper­bol­ic, I think there are few events over the last decade more sig­nif­i­cant than the social network’s whole­sale acqui­si­tion of the tra­di­tion­al func­tions of news media (not to men­tion the polit­i­cal-par­ty appa­ra­tus). Trump’s ascen­dan­cy is far from the first mate­r­i­al con­se­quence of Facebook’s con­quer­ing inva­sion of our social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal lives, but it’s still a brac­ing reminder of the extent to which the social net­work is able to upend exist­ing struc­ture and trans­form soci­ety — and often not for the bet­ter.

The most obvi­ous way in which Face­book enabled a Trump vic­to­ry has been its inabil­i­ty (or refusal) to address the prob­lem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a prob­lem unique to Face­book, but Facebook’s enor­mous audi­ence, and the mech­a­nisms of dis­tri­b­u­tion on which the site relies — i.e., the emo­tion­al­ly charged activ­i­ty of shar­ing, and the show-me-more-like-this feed­back loop of the news feed algo­rithm — makes it the only site to sup­port a gen­uine­ly lucra­tive mar­ket in which shady pub­lish­ers arbi­trage traf­fic [12] by entic­ing peo­ple off of Face­book and onto ad-fes­tooned web­sites, using sto­ries that are alter­nate­ly made up, incor­rect, exag­ger­at­ed beyond all rela­tion­ship to truth, or all three. (To real­ly ham­mer home the cyberdystopia aspect of this: A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the sites are run by Mace­don­ian teenagers look­ing to make some scratch [35].)

All through­out the elec­tion, these fake sto­ries, some­times papered over with flim­sy “par­o­dy site” dis­clo­sures some­where in small type, cir­cu­lat­ed through­out Face­book: The Pope endors­es Trump [14]. Hillary Clin­ton bought $137 mil­lion in ille­gal arms [36]. The Clin­tons bought a $200 mil­lion house in the Mal­dives [37]. Many got hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of shares, likes, and com­ments; enough peo­ple clicked through to the posts to gen­er­ate sig­nif­i­cant prof­its for their cre­ators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and oth­er debunk­ing orga­ni­za­tions were insuf­fi­cient; Facebook’s labyrinthine shar­ing and pri­va­cy set­tings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuf­fle. Often, no one would even need to click on and read the sto­ry for the head­line itself to become a wide­ly dis­trib­uted talk­ing point, repeat­ed else­where online, or, some­times, in real life. (Here’s an in-the-wild sight­ing [38] of a man telling a woman that Clin­ton and her long­time aide Huma Abe­din are lovers, based on “mate­r­i­al that appeared to have been print­ed off the inter­net.”)

Prof­it motive, on the part of Mace­do­nians or Amer­i­cans, was not the only rea­son to share fake news, of course — there was an obvi­ous ide­o­log­i­cal moti­va­tion to lie to or mis­lead poten­tial vot­ers — but the fake-news industry’s com­mit­ment to “engage­ment” above any par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal pro­gram has giv­en it a ter­ri­fy­ing­ly nihilis­tic sheen that old-fash­ioned pro­pa­gan­dists nev­er dis­played. (Say what you will about rat­fuc king, dude, at least it’s an ethos.) And at the heart of the prob­lem, any­way, is not the moti­va­tions of the hoax­ers but the struc­ture of social media itself. Tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, invig­o­rat­ed by insur­gent out­sider can­di­dates and anger at per­ceived polit­i­cal ene­mies, were served up or shared emo­tion­al­ly charged news sto­ries about the can­di­dates [14], because Facebook’s sort­ing algo­rithm under­stood from expe­ri­ence that they were seek­ing such sto­ries. Many of those sto­ries were lies, or “par­o­dies,” but their appear­ance and place­ment in a news feed were no dif­fer­ent from those of any pub­lish­er with a com­mit­ment to, you know, not lying. As those peo­ple and their fol­low­ers clicked on, shared, or oth­er­wise engaged with those sto­ries — which they did, because Trump dri­ves engage­ment extreme­ly bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engage­ment-dri­ving feed­back loop reached the heights of Face­book itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occa­sion after fir­ing the small team of edi­to­r­i­al employ­ees tasked with pass­ing news judg­ment. Flush with Trump’s unique­ly pas­sion­ate sup­port­er base, Facebook’s vast, per­son­al­ized sew­er sys­tem has become clogged with tox­ic fat­bergs [39].

And it is, tru­ly, vast: Some­thing like 170 mil­lion peo­ple in North Amer­i­ca use Face­book every day, a num­ber that’s not only sev­er­al orders of mag­ni­tude larg­er than even the most opti­mistic cir­cu­la­tion reck­on­ings of major news out­lets but also about one-and-a-half times as many peo­ple as vot­ed on Tues­day. Forty-four per­cent of all adults in the Unit­ed States say they get news from Face­book [15], and access to to an audi­ence of that size would seem to demand some kind of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty — an oblig­a­tion to ensure that a group of peo­ple more siz­able than the Amer­i­can elec­torate is not being mis­led. But whether through a fail­ure of resources, of ide­ol­o­gy, or of imag­i­na­tion, Face­book has seemed both unin­ter­est­ed in and inca­pable of even acknowl­edg­ing that it has become the most effi­cient dis­trib­u­tor of mis­in­for­ma­tion in human his­to­ry.

Face­book con­nect­ed those sup­port­ers to each oth­er and to the can­di­date, gave them plat­forms far beyond what even the largest Estab­lish­ment media orga­ni­za­tions might have imag­ined, and allowed them to effec­tive­ly self-orga­nize out­side the par­ty struc­ture. Who needs a GOTV data­base when you have mil­lions of vot­ers worked into a fren­zy by nine months of shar­ing impas­sioned lies on Face­book, encour­ag­ing each oth­er to par­tic­i­pate?

Even bet­ter, Face­book allowed Trump to direct­ly com­bat the huge­ly neg­a­tive media cov­er­age direct­ed at him, sim­ply by giv­ing his cam­paign and its sup­port­ers anoth­er host of chan­nels to dis­trib­ute coun­ter­pro­gram­ming. This, pre­cise­ly, is why more good jour­nal­ism would have been unlike­ly to change anyone’s mind: The Post and the Times no longer have a monop­oly on infor­ma­tion about a can­di­date. End­less reports of cor­rup­tion, venal­i­ty, misog­y­ny, and incom­pe­tence mere­ly set­tle in a Face­book feed next to a hun­dred oth­er arti­cles from pro-Trump sources (if they set­tle into a Trump supporter’s feed at all) dis­put­ing or ignor­ing the deeply report­ed claims, or, as is often the case, just mak­ing up new and dif­fer­ent sto­ries.

2. Paul Carr over at Pan­do had a rather trou­bling obser­va­tion dur­ing the anti-Trump Woman’s March about Facebook’s cov­er­age of the Mil­lion Woman March in its news feed. Specif­i­cal­ly, his obser­va­tion that he was unable to observe any news on Face­book about the his­toric march at all:

“Hun­dreds of Thou­sands of Women March in Protest against Trump: Face­book News Tries to Silence Them All” by Paul Bradley Carr; Pan­do ; 1/21/2017. [16]

We don’t usu­al­ly post on Pan­do at the week­end, but this is too top­i­cal and too shame­ful to wait until Mon­day.

As you cer­tain­ly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton [17] in protest of Don­ald Trump. The main event is in DC, where some­thing close to 500,000 pro­test­ers of all gen­ders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chica­go, New York and around the world. Includ­ing Antarc­ti­ca [18].

You cer­tain­ly know this because the protest march is the top sto­ry on every major news out­let, and because updates and pho­tos from the event are flood­ing your Twit­ter and Face­book feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trend­ing news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed [19]]
And here’s its trend­ing pol­i­tics feed…
[see image of trend­ing pol­i­tics fee [20]]
Notice any­thing miss­ing?

Like, say, a half mil­lion women.

In case you think I’m see­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….

@paulbradleycarr [40] wow. just looked. very poor. i have one men­tion (for chica­go march) under pol­i­tics— Rachel Clarke (@rachelclarke) Jan­u­ary 21, 2017 [41]

@rachelclarke [42]@paulbradleycarr [40] I don’t see any in top trends OR pol­i­tics… and I’m in Chica­go so I thought it might show up— Aesha (@heyitsaesh) Jan­u­ary 21, 2017 [43]

…Facebook’s trend­ing news feed real­ly has oblit­er­at­ed the entire Women’s March in favor of sto­ries about pas­try chefs and pro­fes­sion­al wrestlers.

I’ve writ­ten plen­ty (most recent­ly this [44]) about Facebook’s increas­ing cozi­ness with Don­ald Trump, and there’s plen­ty more to be writ­ten about the grow­ing unhap­pi­ness inside the com­pa­ny with the right-ward direc­tion that senior man­age­ment are tak­ing in an attempt to please (/avoid con­flict with) the incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion. Stay tuned.

For now, I’ve con­tact­ed Face­book to ask if the trend­ing news feed is yet anoth­er exam­ple of that attempt, or if there’s some mys­tery glitch that has caused the voic­es of hun­dreds of thou­sands of women to be silenced in favor of sto­ries that, by Facebook’s own num­bers, only a thou­sand or so peo­ple are talk­ing about. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Update: A Face­book spokesper­son respond­ed to me on Tues­day after­noon, insist­ing that “some num­ber” of the fol­low­ing terms “began trend­ing on Sat­ur­day.”

#why­i­march

#Wom­ensMarch

Women’s March on Boston

Women’s March on Los Ange­les

Women’s March on Chica­go

Sun­dance Women’s March

He was unable to pro­vide sup­port­ing evi­dence for which of the terms trend­ed when, and who might have seen them. “Trend­ing is algo­rith­mi­cal­ly dri­ven based on con­ver­sa­tions on the plat­form,” he explained.

I also asked whether it was accu­rate that Face­book is staffing up its pol­i­cy team with right-wingers or oth­ers sym­pa­thet­ic to Don­ald Trump. The spokesper­son declined to com­ment on the record.

Update II:

Face­book announces [45] it is “updat­ing how top­ics are iden­ti­fied as trend­ing on Face­book”

3. So was Face­book inten­tion­al­ly sup­press­ing the Women’s March or is this is a case of an algo­rith­mic hic­cup that, for what­ev­er rea­son, con­clud­ed that Paul Carr wouldn’t care about such things. Well, accord­ing to the arti­cle below, the num­ber of peo­ple unable to find any trace of the Women’s March in their trend­ing news feed wasn’t lim­it­ed to Carr. But it also wasn’t lim­it­ed to sup­press­ing the Women’s March in trend­ing news feeds either since oth­ers report­ed that they were see­ing the Women’s March in their news feed but no men­tion of Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion. So while it’s unclear what cause the numer­ous reports of major sto­ries not reach­ing some users’ news feeds but not oth­er feed, it’s pret­ty clear that rely­ing on Face­book for your news is prob­a­bly bad news (which shouldn’t be news to any­one) [46]:

“Peo­ple Want to Know Why the Women’s March Was Absent from Face­book Trend­ing News” by Katie Per­ry; Social Media Week; 1/23/2017. [46]

Some peo­ple are ques­tion­ing why the Women’s March was absent from Facebook’s Trend­ing news sec­tion on Jan. 21. Oth­er users say they failed to see the Inau­gu­ra­tion on the list the day pri­or.

Jour­nal­ists and onlook­ers are seek­ing answers as to why Saturday’s Women’s March—fueled by some 3 mil­lion par­tic­i­pants [47] in dozens of cities and towns worldwide—failed to appear on Facebook’s Trend­ing top­ics list for some users dur­ing the height of the event.

Accord­ing to Face­book [48], Trend­ing news items are deter­mined algo­rith­mi­cal­ly based on engage­ment, time­lines, loca­tion and Page like data. Those top­ics appear on the right-rail of the Face­book home screen and link to pop­u­lar arti­cles and posts that are rel­e­vant to each item. These arti­cles gen­er­al­ly line up with the top news sto­ries of the day, as deter­mined and report­ed on by more tra­di­tion­al news out­lets.

But some­thing puz­zling hap­pened on Jan. 21. Despite the Women’s March cap­tur­ing main­stream and local media atten­tion and spurring a flood of pho­tos and com­men­tary from those who marched, some users not­ed that the event was nowhere to be found with­in Facebook’s Trend­ing top­ics list. For Pan­do reporter Paul Bradley Carr, it didn’t even appear [16] with­in the Polit­i­cal sub-sec­tion of Trend­ing top­ics.

Oth­er onlook­ers seem to have ver­i­fied Carr’s find­ing; how­ev­er, some peo­ple did see lim­it­ed cov­er­age (with­in the Polit­i­cal sub-sec­tion, for exam­ple). So far, Face­book has declined to com­ment, which has left room for ram­pant spec­u­la­tion as to whether this was a mere tech­no­log­i­cal glitch or some­thing more delib­er­ate. Note: By Sun­day evening Jan. 22, the march had made its way to my News Feed.

What’s also inter­est­ing is that many peo­ple report­ed not see­ing the Inau­gu­ra­tion as a Trend­ing top­ic the day before. Scrolling through pub­lic com­men­tary and screen­shots [49] shared on Twit­ter, the sit­u­a­tion gets even murki­er. Some users saw the Women’s March trend­ing but not the Inau­gu­ra­tion. Oth­ers saw the oppo­site. The thing about a per­son­al­ized “front page” is that absent a large pool of data, it’s tough to know what real­ly went on behind the scenes.

So, why is what appears in Trend­ing so impor­tant? As was oft-dis­cussed dur­ing and after the last Elec­tion cycle, Amer­i­cans are increas­ing­ly rely­ing on social media as their lead­ing source of news. A Pew study from 2015 [50] found that 40 per­cent of U.S. Face­book users pri­mar­i­ly view it as a des­ti­na­tion for news-gath­er­ing. Among users age 34 and younger, 60 per­cent say social plat­forms like Face­book and Twit­ter are “the most or an impor­tant way” to get news.

For crit­ics of Trend­ing and its influ­ence on the polit­i­cal land­scape, there are two issues at play. The first involves the alleged inter­fer­ence of human edi­tors in what has been posi­tioned as an algo­rith­mic cura­tion by Face­book. The sec­ond debate is more philo­soph­i­cal in nature, as it ques­tions the so-called “bub­bles” that an algo­rith­mic edi­tor nat­u­ral­ly cre­ates.

In fair­ness, right now there is lim­it­ed data avail­able to prove that the Women’s March was absent in a uni­ver­sal capac­i­ty. That said, anec­do­tal­ly, it appears that many peo­ple who should have seen the march did not. Draw­ing some assump­tions, it would have made sense that a tech reporter liv­ing in a major met­ro­pol­i­tan area would be exposed to news of the march—perhaps even in an over-indexed capacity—given that it’s like­ly he or she would have known peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Oth­er jour­nal­ists not­ed that it seemed strange for Twit­ter to be show­ing the march on its own curat­ed news list, but not Face­book.

I think Twit­ter deserves the win for the cov­er­age around Wom­en’s March today. Face­book? Hmm…suspect w/no men­tion in trend­ing top­ics.— Ken Yeung (@thekenyeung) Jan­u­ary 22, 2017 [51]

In May 2016, Vox pub­lished an arti­cle [52] which claimed that “Face­book has more influ­ence over Amer­i­cans than any media com­pa­ny in his­to­ry.” Whether curat­ed con­tent, such as what appears in Trend­ing, has been skewed by users’ per­son­al data or direc­tion­al­ly manip­u­lat­ed by human edi­tors, the net effect is sig­nif­i­cant: “So many peo­ple spend so much time on Face­book that even a small shift in the platform’s approach could have a big impact on what peo­ple read online,” says Vox’s Tim­o­thy B. Lee.

4.  Now that Face­book announced that it’s total­ly chang­ing its news feed algo­rithm so that every­one in the same region will see the same trend­ing news it’s also a bit of a moot mys­tery going for­ward. Sure, it’s not an entire­ly moot mys­tery since it would still be nice to know if Face­book was some­how using its algo­rithm as an excuse to sup­press very neg­a­tive news for Trump. But at least it sounds like there will be new and dif­fer­ent rea­sons for Facebook’s crap­py news feeds going for­ward [21]:

“Face­book Tweaks Its ‘Trend­ing Top­ics’ Algo­rithm To Bet­ter Reflect Real News” by Lau­ra Sydell; Nation Pub­lic Radio; 1/25/2017. [21]

An arti­cle in an online pub­li­ca­tion accus­ing Face­book of sup­press­ing the Women’s March in its trend­ing top­ics caused a lit­tle tem­pest on social media over the week­end. Face­book says it did not inten­tion­al­ly block any sto­ry and is reveal­ing a new way [45] its trend­ing-top­ics algo­rithm will now oper­ate.

Paul Bradley Carr, writ­ing for online out­let Pan­do [16], on Sat­ur­day post­ed what he said were screen shots of his Face­book pages at the height of the world­wide march­es, which brought more than a mil­lion peo­ple into the streets around the globe to protest the agen­da of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

Despite images and sto­ries from the march­es fill­ing many people’s per­son­al Face­book feeds and the day’s media cov­er­age, Carr’s screen­shots showed no signs of the march in Trend­ing Top­ics — a fea­ture sup­posed to reflect pop­u­lar dis­cussed top­ics.

And Carr says he dis­cov­ered he was not the only one who didn’t see the Women’s March reflect­ed on Trend­ing Top­ics, accus­ing Face­book of try­ing to cozy up to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. A very unsci­en­tif­ic poll by this reporter found that among peo­ple in my Face­book and Twit­ter net­work most did see the Women’s March or some­thing relat­ed trend­ing on their page. How­ev­er, a few did not.

Accord­ing to Face­book, the Trend­ing Top­ics — seen to the right of the main news feed on desk­top and in search on mobile — are “based on a num­ber of fac­tors includ­ing engage­ment, time­li­ness, Pages you’ve liked and your loca­tion.” (Face­book pays NPR and oth­er lead­ing news orga­ni­za­tions to pro­duce live video streams.)

Face­book rep­re­sen­ta­tives told NPR that the rea­son why some peo­ple did not see the march as trend­ing had to do with the algo­rithm behind the fea­ture. Although it took into account major news events and what’s pop­u­lar on the site, it also account­ed for the pref­er­ences of each per­son. It’s pos­si­ble that Carr’s algo­rith­mic pro­file indi­cat­ed he wouldn’t be inter­est­ed in the Women’s March.

In addi­tion, some peo­ple may have seen trend­ing top­ics they didn’t real­ize were about the Women’s March. For exam­ple, Ash­ley Judd and Madon­na were trend­ing — both women gave speech­es at the main march in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

And, Face­book says, none of this will hap­pen in the future.

As of Wednes­day, the com­pa­ny has once again changed its trend­ing algo­rithms. Per­son­al pref­er­ences are now out of the equa­tion. “Face­book will no longer be per­son­al­ized based on someone’s inter­ests,” Face­book says in a press release. “Every­one in the same region will see the same top­ics.” For now, a region is con­sid­ered a coun­try, so every­one in the U.S. should see the same top­ics.

The lat­est algo­rithm changes are part of Facebook’s ongo­ing effort to cur­tail the spread of fake news. Some fab­ri­cat­ed sto­ries show up in Trend­ing Top­ics, despite often orig­i­nat­ing on sites with no his­to­ry of vis­i­tors and get­ting no cov­er­age from legit­i­mate news media. It’s a lucra­tive busi­ness, explored by NPR in Novem­ber [53], when we tracked down one noto­ri­ous fake-news cre­ator.

The new algo­rithm would make hoax arti­cles less like­ly to trend because it will look at “the num­ber of pub­lish­ers that are post­ing arti­cles on Face­book about the same top­ic,” account­ing for cov­er­age by mul­ti­ple news out­lets, Face­book says.

 

5.  No more per­son­al­ized real­i­ty bub­bles for Face­book users. Now it’s region­al real­i­ty bub­bles. That’s progress! Maybe. It’s unclear. Espe­cial­ly since the new head of Facebook’s news divi­sion is a right-winger with close ties to Trump’s new edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary [22]:

“Facebook’s New Head Of News Has Close Ties To Con­ser­v­a­tive Pol­i­tics” by Mol­ly Hens­ley-Clan­cy; Buz­zFeed; 1/6/2017. [22]

Camp­bell Brown, a for­mer TV news anchor and edu­ca­tion reform activist, has per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al links to Bet­sy DeVos, Trump’s nom­i­nee for Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary.

Face­book has cho­sen Camp­bell Brown, a for­mer tele­vi­sion news anchor who worked most recent­ly as an edu­ca­tion reform activist, as its head of news part­ner­ships, tasked with rebuild­ing rela­tion­ships with news out­lets in the wake of a wave of fake news sto­ries [54] that dom­i­nat­ed the site dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Brown has long­stand­ing ties not just to the tra­di­tion­al news media, but also to con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics, although she describes her­self as a polit­i­cal inde­pen­dent. She is a close per­son­al friend of Bet­sy DeVos, the Repub­li­can megadonor who is Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nee for Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary [23], and is mar­ried to Dan Senor, a for­mer top advi­sor to Mitt Rom­ney who also served as spokesper­son for the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sion­al Author­i­ty in the wake of the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq.

But she, and Senor, were cen­tral to the los­ing bat­tle against Don­ald Trump inside the Repub­li­can Par­ty. Last June, in a closed-door inter­view with Paul Ryan [55], she grilled the House Speak­er on his deci­sion to back Trump, ask­ing him how he would jus­ti­fy his deci­sion to a small child. She had ear­li­er blamed the news media for aid­ing Trump’s rise. “He is not a politi­cian. He is not a leader. He is a supreme nar­cis­sist,” wrote in Decem­ber, 2015 [56], crit­i­ciz­ing TV net­works for their sat­u­ra­tion cov­er­age of the then-can­di­date. “You can deprive him of the one thing that keeps him going—airtime.”

At Face­book, she will work to nav­i­gate the social network’s some­times fraught role as a cen­tral play­er in the news indus­try. She won’t, how­ev­er, be mak­ing edi­to­r­i­al or con­tent-relat­ed deci­sions, such as decid­ing what sto­ries get play on Face­book, the com­pa­ny said.

“Right now we are watch­ing a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion take place in the news busi­ness – both in the way peo­ple con­sume news and in the way reporters dis­sem­i­nate news,” Brown wrote in a Face­book post Fri­day. “Face­book is a major part of this trans­for­ma­tion.”

In the wake of the elec­tion, Face­book has weath­ered crit­i­cism over its inabil­i­ty to stem a tide of fake polit­i­cal news sto­ries. It has also scram­bled to mend ties with con­ser­v­a­tive pub­li­ca­tions [57] after reports claimed its trend­ing news team sup­pressed sto­ries from con­ser­v­a­tive news out­lets.

In her post-media career as an edu­ca­tion activist, Brown found­ed an advo­ca­cy group, the Part­ner­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice, whose donors she chose to keep secret, that fre­quent­ly bat­tles with teach­ers’ unions. And she has worked in favor of char­ter school expan­sion, a pet project of Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg.

And along­side her main­stream media expe­ri­ence, Brown is famil­iar with the world of non-tra­di­tion­al news out­lets spring­ing up online. In 2014, she found­ed a non­prof­it news site, The 74, which bills itself as non­par­ti­san but which crit­ics have said func­tions as advo­ca­cy jour­nal­ism, tilt­ed in favor of char­ter schools and against teach­ers’ unions.

The site was launched with mon­ey from donors includ­ing the foun­da­tion run by DeVos, Trump’s pro­posed Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary. When the nom­i­na­tion was announced, Brown said she would recuse her­self from The 74’s cov­er­age of DeVos.

Ear­li­er this year, The 74 pub­lished an under­cov­er sting video [58] made by con­ser­v­a­tive activist James O’Keefe, who posed under­cov­er as a teacher and filmed union rep­re­sen­ta­tives advis­ing him on how to han­dle a hypo­thet­i­cal assault of a child.

6. The guy just hired as the new Face­book Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor who will be focused on prod­uct com­mu­ni­ca­tions, specif­i­cal­ly on the news feed, is Tuck­er Bounds [24].

“Axios AM” by Mike Allen; Axios ; 1/16/2017. [24]

Good Mon­day morn­ing! Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day is a per­fect time to reflect on his­toric days for our coun­try, as we head into Inau­gu­ra­tion Week. It’s three days and a wake-up till Pres­i­dent Trump.

Scoop … Face­book adds a well-known oper­a­tive: Tuck­er Bounds — co-founder of Sidewire, the online con­ver­sa­tion plat­form — is step­ping away from his oper­a­tional role and return­ing to Face­book, where he was direc­tor of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions from 2011 to 2014. Tuck­er, who’ll keep his seat on the Side­wise board, starts Jan. 30 as Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor, focused on prod­uct com­mu­ni­ca­tions, specif­i­cal­ly on News Feed. . . .

 

7. Fun fact: those Face­book per­son­al­i­ty tests that alleged­ly let you learn things about what make you tick allows who­ev­er set up that test learn what makes you tick too. Since it’s done through Face­book, they can iden­ti­fy your test results with your real iden­ti­ty. It’s a rather obvi­ous fun fact.

Here’s a less obvi­ous fun fact: if the Face­book per­son­al­i­ty test in ques­tion hap­pens to report your “Ocean score” (Open­ness, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, Extra­ver­sion, Agree­able­ness and Neu­roti­cism), that means the test your tak­ing was cre­at­ed by Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, a com­pa­ny with one of Don­ald Trump’s bil­lion­aire sug­ar-dad­dies, Robert Mer­cer, as a major investor. And it’s Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca that gets to learn all those fun facts about your psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file too. And Steve Ban­non sat on its board:

“The Secret Agen­da of a Face­book Quiz” by McKen­zie Funk; The New York Times; 1/19/2017. [26]

Do you pan­ic eas­i­ly? Do you often feel blue? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you believe in the impor­tance of art?

If ever you’ve answered ques­tions like these on one of the free per­son­al­i­ty quizzes float­ing around Face­book, you’ll have learned what’s known as your Ocean score: How you rate accord­ing to the big five psy­cho­log­i­cal traits of Open­ness, Con­sci­en­tious­ness, Extra­ver­sion, Agree­able­ness and Neu­roti­cism. You may also be respon­si­ble the next time Amer­i­ca is shocked by an elec­tion upset.

For sev­er­al years, a data firm even­tu­al­ly hired by the Trump cam­paign, Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, has been using Face­book as a tool to build psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files that rep­re­sent some 230 mil­lion adult Amer­i­cans. A spin­off of a British con­sult­ing com­pa­ny and some­time-defense con­trac­tor known for its coun­tert­er­ror­ism “psy ops” work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seed­ing the social net­work with per­son­al­i­ty quizzes. Respon­dents — by now hun­dreds of thou­sands of us, most­ly female and most­ly young but enough male and old­er for the firm to make infer­ences about oth­ers with sim­i­lar behav­iors and demo­graph­ics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Face­book, gains access to their pro­files and real names.

Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca worked on the “Leave” side of the Brex­it cam­paign. In the Unit­ed States it takes only Repub­li­cans as clients: Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz in the pri­maries, Mr. Trump in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Cam­bridge is report­ed­ly backed by Robert Mer­cer [27], a hedge fund bil­lion­aire and a major Repub­li­can donor; a key board mem­ber is Stephen K. Ban­non, the head of Bre­it­bart News who became Mr. Trump’s cam­paign chair­man and is set to be his chief strate­gist in the White House.

In the age of Face­book, it has become far eas­i­er for cam­paign­ers or mar­keters to com­bine our online per­sonas with our offline selves, a process that was once con­tro­ver­sial but is now so com­mon­place that there’s a term for it, “onboard­ing.” Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca says it has as many as 3,000 to 5,000 data points on each of us, be it vot­ing his­to­ries or full-spec­trum demo­graph­ics — age, income, debt, hob­bies, crim­i­nal his­to­ries, pur­chase his­to­ries, reli­gious lean­ings, health con­cerns, gun own­er­ship, car own­er­ship, home­own­er­ship — from con­sumer-data giants.

No data point is very infor­ma­tive on its own, but pro­fil­ing vot­ers, says Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, is like bak­ing a cake. “It’s the sum of the ingre­di­ents,” its chief exec­u­tive offi­cer, Alexan­der Nix, told NBC News. Because the Unit­ed States lacks Euro­pean-style restric­tions on sec­ond- or third­hand use of our data, and because our free­dom-of-infor­ma­tion laws give data bro­kers broad access to the inti­mate records kept by local and state gov­ern­ments, our lives are open books even with­out social media or per­son­al­i­ty quizzes.

Ever since the adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive Lester Wun­der­man coined the term “direct mar­ket­ing” in 1961, the abil­i­ty to tar­get spe­cif­ic con­sumers with ads — rather than blan­ket­ing the air­waves with mass appeals and hop­ing the right peo­ple will hear them — has been the marketer’s holy grail. What’s new is the effi­cien­cy with which indi­vid­u­al­ly tai­lored dig­i­tal ads can be test­ed and matched to our per­son­al­i­ties. Face­book is the microtargeter’s ulti­mate weapon.

The explo­sive growth of Facebook’s ad busi­ness has been over­shad­owed by its increas­ing role in how we get our news, real or fake. In July, the social net­work post­ed record earn­ings: quar­ter­ly sales were up 59 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year, and prof­its almost tripled to $2.06 bil­lion. While active users of Face­book — now 1.71 bil­lion month­ly active users — were up 15 per­cent, the real sto­ry was how much each indi­vid­ual user was worth. The com­pa­ny makes $3.82 a year from each glob­al user, up from $2.76 a year ago, and an aver­age of $14.34 per user in the Unit­ed States, up from $9.30 a year ago. Much of this growth comes from the fact that adver­tis­ers not only have an enor­mous audi­ence in Face­book but an audi­ence they can slice into the tranch­es they hope to reach.

One recent adver­tis­ing prod­uct on Face­book is the so-called “dark post”: A news­feed mes­sage seen by no one aside from the users being tar­get­ed. With the help of Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, Mr. Trump’s dig­i­tal team used dark posts to serve dif­fer­ent ads to dif­fer­ent poten­tial vot­ers, aim­ing to push the exact right but­tons for the exact right peo­ple at the exact right times.

Imag­ine the full capa­bil­i­ty of this kind of “psy­cho­graph­ic” adver­tis­ing. In future Repub­li­can cam­paigns, a pro-gun vot­er whose Ocean score ranks him high on neu­roti­cism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Demo­c­rat wants to take his guns away. A sep­a­rate pro-gun vot­er deemed agree­able and intro­vert­ed might see an ad empha­siz­ing tra­di­tion and com­mu­ni­ty val­ues, a father and son hunt­ing togeth­er.

In this elec­tion, dark posts were used to try to sup­press the African-Amer­i­can vote. Accord­ing to Bloomberg, the Trump cam­paign sent ads remind­ing cer­tain select­ed black vot­ers of Hillary Clinton’s infa­mous “super preda­tor” line. It tar­get­ed Miami’s Lit­tle Haiti neigh­bor­hood with mes­sages about the Clin­ton Foundation’s trou­bles in Haiti after the 2010 earth­quake. Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion rules are unclear when it comes to Face­book posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whis­tles loud, the already weak­en­ing pow­er of social oppro­bri­um is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Don­ald Trump, and I approved this mes­sage.”

While Hillary Clin­ton spent more than $140 mil­lion on tele­vi­sion spots, old-media experts scoffed at Trump’s lack of old-media ad buys. Instead, his cam­paign pumped its mon­ey into dig­i­tal, espe­cial­ly Face­book. One day in August, it flood­ed the social net­work with 100,000 ad vari­a­tions, so-called A/B test­ing on a bib­li­cal scale, sure­ly more ads than could eas­i­ly be vet­ted by human eyes for com­pli­ance with Facebook’s “com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards.”

On Mon­day, after a sim­i­lar announce­ment from Google, Face­book said it would no longer allow fake-news web­sites to show ads, on their own sites, from Facebook’s ad net­work — a half-step that nei­ther blocks what appears on your news­feed nor affects how adver­tis­ers can micro­tar­get users on the social net­work.

There are sure­ly more changes to come. Mr. Zucker­berg is young, still skep­ti­cal that his radi­ant trans­paren­cy machine could be any­thing but a force for good, right­ly wary of polic­ing what the world’s diverse cit­i­zens say and share on his net­work, so far most­ly dis­mis­sive of Facebook’s role in the elec­tion. If Mr. Zucker­berg takes seri­ous­ly his oft-stat­ed com­mit­ments to diver­si­ty and open­ness, he must grap­ple hon­est­ly with the fact that Face­book is no longer just a social net­work. It’s an adver­tis­ing medi­um that’s now dan­ger­ous­ly easy to weaponize.

A Trump admin­is­tra­tion is unlike­ly to enforce trans­paren­cy about who is tar­get­ed by dark posts and oth­er hid­den polit­i­cal ads — or to ensure that politi­cians take mean­ing­ful own­er­ship of what the ads say. But Face­book can.

8. So what do we know about Robert Mer­cer, the man who first backed Ted Cruz in the 2016 race and then quick­ly switched to Trump? Well, there report­ed­ly isn’t very much known about his politics…except that he’s a lib­er­tar­i­an who backed Don­ald Trump after back­ing Ted Cruz. Which is pret­ty much all we need to know to know that he’s up to no good [28]:

“What Does the Bil­lion­aire Fam­i­ly Back­ing Don­ald Trump Real­ly Want?” by Rosie Gray; The Atlantic; 1/27/2017. [28]

The Mer­cers are enjoy­ing more influ­ence than ever with their can­di­date in the White House—but no one seems to know how they intend to use it.

She owns a cook­ie store. He loves mod­el trains. They both hate the Clin­tons. And beyond that, not much is clear about the moti­va­tions of the Mer­cer father-daugh­ter duo of Repub­li­can megadonors who have become two of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the coun­try over the last 18 months.

Hedge-fund bil­lion­aire Robert Mer­cer and his daugh­ter Rebekah were among the ear­li­est and strongest back­ers of Don­ald Trump while oth­er elite donors still dis­dained him. It turned out to be a good invest­ment. But now, with their favored can­di­date fresh­ly installed as pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, it remains unclear what they believe, or what they hope their invest­ment will yield.

The Mer­cers have been a qui­et but con­stant pres­ence in the back­ground of Repub­li­can pol­i­tics since the begin­ning of the 2016 cycle. They start­ed the cam­paign as back­ers of Ted Cruz, pour­ing mil­lions into one of the main super PACs sup­port­ing his can­di­da­cy. Their data firm, Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, was hired by the Cruz cam­paign. They switched to sup­port Trump short­ly after he clinched the nom­i­na­tion, and he even­tu­al­ly hired Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, as well. Their top polit­i­cal guru is Steve Ban­non, the for­mer Bre­it­bart News chair­man and White House chief strate­gist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s cam­paign man­ag­er Kellyanne Con­way, who also has a senior role in the White House. They nev­er speak to the press and hard­ly ever even release a pub­lic state­ment. Like Trump him­self, they’ve flout­ed the stan­dard play­book for how things are done in pol­i­tics.

Clues to their pol­i­cy pref­er­ences can be found in their fam­i­ly foundation’s pat­tern of giv­ing. For exam­ple, they have giv­en more than once to groups ques­tion­ing cli­mate-change sci­ence. But their dona­tions have flown to groups all over the con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal map, rang­ing from lib­er­tar­i­an orga­ni­za­tions to move­ment con­ser­v­a­tive groups to the Koch broth­ers’ Free­dom Part­ners Action Fund to Bre­it­bart. That scat­ter­shot approach sug­gests the fam­i­ly has some ide­o­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­i­ty.

No one seems to know what moti­vates the Mer­cers or what poli­cies they want to see enact­ed, even peo­ple who have worked close­ly with them or for projects fund­ed by them. While they’ve poured mon­ey into con­ser­v­a­tive caus­es, they’ve also invest­ed in projects explic­it­ly aimed at over­turn­ing the mod­ern con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment, like Bre­it­bart News, in which they report­ed­ly [59] invest­ed $10 mil­lion, and Trump him­self. And the mys­tery of their ide­o­log­i­cal moti­va­tions is made all the more strik­ing by their suc­cess in help­ing Trump reach the White House. A recent Wall Street Jour­nal sto­ry [60] on the Mer­cers con­clud­ed: “It isn’t clear what spe­cif­ic poli­cies or posi­tions, if any, the Mer­cers are seek­ing for their sup­port of Mr. Trump.”

“All I can take away is that they just want to be pow­er play­ers,” said a for­mer Bre­it­bart News staffer, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty because of a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment. “I don’t know what their prin­ci­ples are. I don’t know how you switch from Ted Cruz to Don­ald Trump so quick­ly.”

“Most of these peo­ple I think I under­stand,” said a Repub­li­can oper­a­tive who has been engaged on sev­er­al Mer­cer-led efforts. (Like most peo­ple quot­ed in this sto­ry, the oper­a­tive declined to be iden­ti­fied for fear of legal or pro­fes­sion­al con­se­quences for speak­ing pub­licly about the Mer­cers.) “I don’t under­stand the Mer­cers.”

Rebekah Mer­cer “talks busi­ness. She talks data, she talks trends, she talks mes­sag­ing,” said anoth­er Repub­li­can oper­a­tive who has worked with the Mer­cers. “I have nev­er real­ly been in her pres­ence where she’s talked pol­i­cy.”

Asked to describe what’s moti­vat­ing them, Ban­non him­self was vague.

“Real­ly incred­i­ble folks,” Ban­non said in an email. “Nev­er ask for any­thing. Very mid­dle class val­ues as they came to their great wealth late in life.”

* * *

Robert Mer­cer got his start at IBM, work­ing there for over 20 years. He went to Renais­sance Tech­nolo­gies in 1993. It’s there that Mer­cer, already well into mid­dle age, became wealthy. Renais­sance, based in East Setauket, Long Island, includes three hedge funds man­ag­ing over $25 bil­lion in assets, as well as the mys­te­ri­ous Medal­lion Fund [61], an employ­ees-only fund that has made its investors unimag­in­ably rich. Mercer’s co-CEO is Jim Simons, a major donor to Democ­rats; one Repub­li­can oper­a­tive with con­nec­tions to the Mer­cers who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty joked that the pair were try­ing to “hedge the polit­i­cal sys­tem.”

Rebekah, known as Bekah, is one of Bob and Diana Mercer’s three daugh­ters. Along with her sis­ters Heather Sue and Jen­nifer (“Jen­ji”), she owns Ruby et Vio­lette, a cook­ie store in New York (the cook­ies are now sold exclu­sive­ly online). Rebekah, 43, is mar­ried to a French Mor­gan Stan­ley exec­u­tive, Syl­vain Mirochnikoff, with whom she has four chil­dren. Mer­cer did not respond to requests for com­ment for this sto­ry.

Bob Mer­cer, 70, is an enig­mat­ic fig­ure who has a rep­u­ta­tion for rarely speak­ing pub­licly. Near­ly every­one spo­ken to for this sto­ry used some vari­a­tion of the word “bril­liant” to describe him. There’s a touch of eccen­tric­i­ty, too; “I know a cou­ple things you can bond with Bob Mer­cer over is he hates the Fed­er­al Reserve and loves mod­el trains,” said one Repub­li­can oper­a­tive who has worked on Mer­cer-backed ini­tia­tives. (Mer­cer once sued [62] a mod­el train man­u­fac­tur­er, alleg­ing that he was over­charged for a mod­el train set installed in Owl’s Nest, his expan­sive Long Island estate).

What­ev­er her actu­al beliefs, there’s one thing upon which peo­ple who have worked with Rebekah Mer­cer agree: She has a keen under­stand­ing of pol­i­tics and likes to be involved in the day-to-day run­ning of projects she’s involved in. Many donors like to play strate­gist, much to the annoy­ance of the actu­al strate­gists in their employ. But Mer­cer appears to be more suc­cess­ful at it than most.

“Almost all donors want to pre­tend they’re Karl Rove. They all want to play polit­i­cal mas­ter­mind,” said one of the Repub­li­can oper­a­tives who has worked on Mer­cer-fund­ed projects. But “I would say that Rebekah is as smart at pol­i­tics as you could be with­out ever hav­ing been at the grunt lev­el.”

“Her polit­i­cal instincts were always on the mon­ey,” said Hogan Gid­ley, a for­mer Mike Huck­abee aide who served as spokesman for the Make Amer­i­ca Num­ber One PAC which became the Mer­cers’ pro-Trump vehi­cle dur­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion. “We would be talk­ing about how a cer­tain ad should look or changes we should make to an ad, and she would just offer an idea that would just elic­it instan­ta­neous agree­ment. It wasn’t because they were large­ly fund­ing the PAC, it was because she was right.”

Gid­ley said Mer­cer was on every con­fer­ence call relat­ed to the super PAC’s oper­a­tions. Even so, he didn’t get a clear sense of Mer­cer or her father’s ide­ol­o­gy.

“They’re lib­er­tar­i­ans who under­stand that they might have to make com­pro­mis­es with social con­ser­v­a­tives,” said one per­son in the non-prof­it world who is a recip­i­ent of mul­ti­ple Mer­cer grants. “They’re just as at home at the Cato Insti­tute as they would be at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion on gen­er­al issues.”

The Mer­cers, the non-prof­it activist said, appeared to have two goals this elec­tion cycle: “They’ve been fight­ing the Clin­tons for­ev­er, and they want­ed to back the win­ning horse.”

That first goal has been clear for some time. The Mer­cers have for years had their hands in the cot­tage indus­try of anti-Clin­ton activ­i­ty in and around the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment. Accord­ing to tax records from the Mer­cer Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion, they gave near­ly $3.6 mil­lion to Cit­i­zens Unit­ed between 2012 and 2014, which sued for access to Clin­ton Foun­da­tion-relat­ed emails last year and whose pres­i­dent David Bossie also got a senior job on the Trump cam­paign. They’ve also invest­ed in the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Insti­tute, which pub­lish­es the con­ser­v­a­tive author Peter Schweiz­er. Schweizer’s book Clin­ton Cash was an influ­en­tial source of talk­ing points for Trump allies dur­ing this elec­tion cycle, pro­vid­ing fod­der for one of Trump’s ear­ly salvos against Clin­ton in a speech in June and reg­u­lar­ly pop­u­lat­ing the pages of Bre­it­bart. Ban­non co-found­ed GAI with Schweiz­er; Rebekah Mer­cer has sat on the board.

The Mer­cers’ activ­i­ties dur­ing the elec­tion cycle are among the clear­est pub­lic evi­dence of how their beliefs, what­ev­er they might be, trans­late into action.

At first, the Mer­cers went in for Cruz. They backed Keep the Promise 1, one of the main super PACs sup­port­ing Cruz, to the tune of $11 mil­lion. Like oth­er cam­paigns with which the Mer­cers have been involved, includ­ing Trump’s, the Cruz cam­paign engaged the Mercers’s data firm Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca. Cruz cam­paign offi­cials clashed with Cam­bridge over the par­tic­u­lars of the con­tract and lodged com­plaints about the prod­uct itself, accord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources famil­iar with what hap­pened; in one instance, the Cruz cam­paign was pay­ing for a data­base sys­tem, RIPON, that had not been built yet, lead­ing to a con­tentious argu­ment. They also caught wind of work Cam­bridge had done for the Ben Car­son cam­paign; work­ing on more than one pri­ma­ry cam­paign is a no-no for ven­dors. Else­where in Mer­cer-world, there were oth­er signs of trou­ble when it came to Cruz. In Jan­u­ary, before the pri­maries had even begun, Bre­it­bart News began attack­ing Cruz, insin­u­at­ing that he was inel­i­gi­ble to be pres­i­dent because of his Cana­di­an birth (a line also in heavy use by Trump at the time). Mean­while, the Mer­cers were still pub­licly behind Cruz.

“Cam­bridge Analytica’s data sci­ence team had an excel­lent rela­tion­ship with the Cruz cam­paign: we were part of the cam­paign start­ing from day one and all the way through the pri­maries and cau­cus­es until the final day, and we con­tin­ue to work with many of the prin­ci­pals from the cam­paign,” a spokesman for Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca said. On the work they had done for the Car­son cam­paign, the spokesman said “Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca is large enough to work on more than one cam­paign at any giv­en time, and we take FEC fire­wall reg­u­la­tions very seri­ous­ly. We would not work with mul­ti­ple clients if we did not have the scale to pro­vide devot­ed resources to ensure full com­pli­ance with fire­walling pro­ce­dures.” And on RIPON, the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca spokesman said “Ripon was being used by many sen­a­to­r­i­al and guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­dates in the 2014 mid-terms. Some bespoke mod­i­fi­ca­tions were request­ed by the Cruz cam­paign and we were of course hap­py to make those for them.”

The Bre­it­bart sto­ries were trou­bling to Cruz staff, who had seen Bre­it­bart as an ally and who didn’t think they had any rea­son to doubt the Mer­cers’ loy­al­ty.

What Cruz’s staff may not have tak­en into account was the behind-the-scenes influ­ence of Steve Ban­non.

“I don’t think [the Mer­cers are] as nation­al­is­tic as Steve,” said a Repub­li­can oper­a­tive who has worked for the Mer­cers. “Steve is an unapolo­getic nation­al­ist. I don’t think the Mer­cers are as much.” But “they share a real dis­dain for elit­ism. That’s what sort of binds them togeth­er.”

Anoth­er of the Repub­li­can oper­a­tives described Ban­non as the “Obi-Wan Keno­bi” to Rebekah Mer­cer, and a third was even more point­ed: “Sven­gali.” Ban­non is “real­ly, real­ly, real­ly influ­en­tial” with Mer­cer, said the for­mer Bre­it­bart employ­ee. The Mer­cers, the for­mer employ­ee said, made their wish­es known through Ban­non, who would some­times cite the company’s finan­cial back­ers as a rea­son for Bre­it­bart not to do a sto­ry. Ban­non didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about this.

That high­lights a third appar­ent goal, which became clear­er over the course of the cam­paign: dis­man­tling the estab­lish­ment. . . .

9. Guess which major world leader is report­ed­ly tak­ing the advice of Cur­tis Yarvin, a.k.a. Men­cius Mold­bug, the pro-monar­chy, pro-eugen­ics founder of the con­tem­po­rary “Dark Enlight­en­ment”? [63]

“What Steve Ban­non Wants You to Read” by Eliana John­son and Eli Stokols; Politi­co; 2/07/2017. [29]

Pres­i­dent Trump’s strate­gic advis­er is ele­vat­ing a once-obscure net­work of polit­i­cal thinkers.

The first weeks of the Trump pres­i­den­cy have brought as much focus on the White House’s chief strate­gist, Steve Ban­non, as on the new pres­i­dent him­self. But if Ban­non has been the dri­ving force behind the fren­zy of activ­i­ty in the White House, less atten­tion has been paid to the net­work of polit­i­cal philoso­phers who have shaped his think­ing and who now enjoy a direct line to the White House.

They are not main­stream thinkers, but their writ­ings help to explain the com­mo­tion that has defined the Trump administration’s ear­ly days. They include a Lebanese-Amer­i­can author known for his the­o­ries about hard-to-pre­dict events; an obscure Sil­i­con Val­ley com­put­er sci­en­tist whose online polit­i­cal tracts her­ald a “Dark Enlight­en­ment”; and a for­mer Wall Street exec­u­tive who urged Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion in anony­mous man­i­festos by liken­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of the coun­try to that of a hijacked airplane—and who now works for the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil.

Ban­non, described by one asso­ciate as “the most well-read per­son in Wash­ing­ton,” is known for rec­om­mend­ing books to col­leagues and friends, accord­ing to mul­ti­ple peo­ple who have worked along­side him. He is a vora­cious read­er who devours works of his­to­ry and polit­i­cal the­o­ry “in like an hour,” said a for­mer asso­ciate whom Ban­non urged to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “He’s like the Rain Man of nation­al­ism.”

But, said the source, who request­ed anonymi­ty to speak can­did­ly about Ban­non, “There are some things he’s only going to share with peo­ple who he’s tight with and who he trusts.”

Bannon’s read­ings tend to have one thing in com­mon: the view that tech­nocrats have put West­ern civ­i­liza­tion on a down­ward tra­jec­to­ry and that only a shock to the sys­tem can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apoc­a­lyp­tic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own pub­lic remarks over the years—a sense that human­i­ty is at a hinge point in his­to­ry. His ascen­dant pres­ence in the West Wing is giv­ing once-obscure intel­lec­tu­als unex­pect­ed influ­ence over the high­est ech­e­lons of gov­ern­ment.

Bannon’s 2015 doc­u­men­tary, “Gen­er­a­tion Zero,” drew heav­i­ly on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turn­ing” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book explains a the­o­ry of his­to­ry unfold­ing in 80- to 100-year cycles, or “turn­ings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by peri­ods of cat­a­clysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a cur­rent peri­od that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis and has now been man­i­fest­ed in part by the rise of Trump.

“The West is in trou­ble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s elec­tion was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not autho­rized to speak pub­licly. “It was a revolt against man­age­ri­al­ism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the admin­is­tra­tive state. It opens the door to pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

All of these impuls­es are evi­dent in the White House, as the new administration—led by Ban­non and a cadre of like-mind­ed aides—has set about admin­is­ter­ing a sort of ide­o­log­i­cal shock ther­a­py in its first two weeks. A flur­ry of exec­u­tive orders slash­ing reg­u­la­tion and restrict­ing the influx of refugees bear the ide­o­log­i­cal mark­ings of obscure intel­lec­tu­als in both form and con­tent. The cir­cum­ven­tion of the bureau­cra­cy is a hall­mark of these thinkers, as is the neces­si­ty of restrict­ing immi­gra­tion.

Their think­ing has a clear nation­al­ist strain, and Ban­non has con­sid­ered hir­ing a staffer respon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing nation­al­ist move­ments around the world, accord­ing to two sources famil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion. French pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Marine Le Pen’s vis­it to Trump Tow­er in mid-Jan­u­ary was his hand­i­work. Le Pen has devot­ed her polit­i­cal career to soft­en­ing the image and broad­en­ing the appeal of the nation­al­ist move­ment in France by mar­gin­al­iz­ing its most extrem­ist mem­bers. Her views are typ­i­cal­ly nation­al­ist: She is hos­tile to the Euro­pean Union and free trade and oppos­es grant­i­ng for­eign­ers from out­side the EU the right to vote in local elec­tions. Bannon’s for­mer employ­er, Bre­it­bart News, has cov­ered Le Pen obses­sive­ly [64], cast­ing her as the French Trump.

***

Many polit­i­cal onlook­ers described Trump’s elec­tion as a “black swan” event: unex­pect­ed but enor­mous­ly con­se­quen­tial. The term was pop­u­lar­ized by Nas­sim Taleb, the best-sell­ing author whose 2014 book Antifrag­ile—which has been read and cir­cu­lat­ed by Ban­non and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insur­gency.

It’s a broad­side against big gov­ern­ment, which Taleb faults for sup­press­ing the ran­dom­ness, volatil­i­ty and stress that keep insti­tu­tions and peo­ple healthy. “As with neu­rot­i­cal­ly over­pro­tec­tive par­ents, those who are try­ing to help us are hurt­ing us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a with­er­ing cri­tique of glob­al elites, whom he describes as a cor­rupt class of risk-averse insid­ers immune to the con­se­quences of their actions: “We are wit­ness­ing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureau­crats, bankers, Davos-attend­ing mem­bers of the I.A.N.D (Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Name Drop­pers), and aca­d­e­mics with too much pow­er and no real down­side and/or account­abil­i­ty. They game the sys­tem while cit­i­zens pay the price.”

It might as well have been the mis­sion state­ment of the Trump cam­paign. Asked in a phone inter­view this week whether he’s had meet­ings with Ban­non or his asso­ciates, Taleb said he could not com­ment. “Any­thing about pri­vate meet­ings would need to come from them,” he said, though he not­ed cryp­ti­cal­ly he’s had “cof­fee with friends.” He has been sup­port­ive of Trump but does not define him­self as a sup­port­er per se, though he said he would “be on the first train” to Wash­ing­ton were he invit­ed to the White House.

“They look like the incar­na­tion of ‘antifrag­ile’ peo­ple,” Taleb said of the new admin­is­tra­tion. “The def­i­n­i­tion of ‘antifrag­ile’ is hav­ing more upside than down­side. For exam­ple, Oba­ma had lit­tle upside because every­one thought he was bril­liant and would solve the world’s prob­lems, so when he didn’t it was dis­ap­point­ing. Trump has lit­tle down­side because he’s already been so heav­i­ly crit­i­cized. He’s heav­i­ly vac­ci­nat­ed because of his check­ered his­to­ry. Peo­ple have to under­stand: Trump did not run to be arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury.”

Trump’s first two weeks in office have pro­duced a dizzy­ing blur of activ­i­ty. But the pres­i­dent has also need­less­ly sparked con­tro­ver­sy, argu­ing, for exam­ple, that his inau­gu­ra­tion crowd was the biggest ever and that mil­lions of peo­ple vot­ed ille­gal­ly in last November’s elec­tion, leav­ing even sea­soned polit­i­cal observers befud­dled.

Before he emerged on the polit­i­cal scene, an obscure Sil­i­con Val­ley com­put­er pro­gram­mer with ties to Trump backer and Pay­Pal co-founder Peter Thiel was explain­ing his behav­ior. Cur­tis Yarvin, the self-pro­claimed “neo­re­ac­tionary” who blogs under the name “Men­cius Mold­bug,” attract­ed a fol­low­ing in 2008 when he pub­lished a wordy trea­tise assert­ing, among oth­er things, that “non­sense is a more effec­tive orga­niz­ing tool than the truth.” When the orga­niz­er of a com­put­er sci­ence con­fer­ence can­celed Yarvin’s appear­ance fol­low­ing an out­cry over his blog­ging under his nom de web, Ban­non took note: Bre­it­bart News decried the act of cen­sor­ship in an arti­cle about the programmer-blogger’s dis­missal.

Moldbug’s dense, dis­cur­sive mus­ings on history—“What’s so bad about the Nazis?” he asks in one 2008 post [30] that con­demns the Holo­caust but ques­tions the moral supe­ri­or­i­ty of the Allies—include a belief in the util­i­ty of spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion that now looks like a tem­plate for Trump’s approach to truth. “To believe in non­sense is an unforge­able [sic] demon­stra­tion of loy­al­ty. It serves as a polit­i­cal uni­form. And if you have a uni­form, you have an army,” he writes in a May 2008 post [31].

In one Jan­u­ary 2008 post [65], titled “How I stopped believ­ing in democ­ra­cy,” he decries the “George­town­ist world­view” of elites like the late diplo­mat George Ken­nan. Moldbug’s writ­ings, com­ing amid the fail­ure of the U.S. state-build­ing project in Iraq, are hard to parse clear­ly and are open to mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions, but the author seems aware that his views are provoca­tive. “It’s been a while since I post­ed any­thing real­ly con­tro­ver­sial and offen­sive here,” he begins in a July 25, 2007, post [32] explain­ing why he asso­ciates democ­ra­cy with “war, tyran­ny, destruc­tion and pover­ty.”

Mold­bug, who does not do inter­views and could not be reached for this sto­ry, has report­ed­ly opened up a line to the White House, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Ban­non and his aides through an inter­me­di­ary, accord­ing to a source. Yarvin said he has nev­er spo­ken with Ban­non. . . . .

***

If Taleb and Yarvin laid some of the the­o­ret­i­cal ground­work for Trump­ism, the most mus­cu­lar and con­tro­ver­sial case for elect­ing him president—and the most unre­lent­ing attack on Trump’s con­ser­v­a­tive critics—came from Michael Anton, a one­time con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­al writ­ing under the pseu­do­nym Pub­lius Decius Mus.

Thanks to an entree from Thiel, Anton now sits on the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil staff. Ini­tial reports [66] indi­cat­ed he would serve as a spokesman, but Anton is set to take on a pol­i­cy role, accord­ing to a source with knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion. A for­mer speech­writer for Rudy Giu­liani and George W. Bush’s Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, Anton most recent­ly worked as a man­ag­ing direc­tor for Black­Rock, the Wall Street invest­ment firm.

10. Face­book has been devel­op­ing new arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) tech­nol­o­gy to clas­si­fy pic­tures on your Face­book page:

“Face­book Qui­et­ly Used AI to Solve Prob­lem of Search­ing Through Your Pho­tos” by Dave Ger­sh­gorn [Quartz]; Nextgov.com; 2/2/2017. [33]

For the past few months, Face­book has secret­ly been rolling out a new fea­ture to U.S. users: the abil­i­ty to search pho­tos by what’s depict­ed in them, rather than by cap­tions or tags.

The idea itself isn’t new: Google Pho­tos had this fea­ture built in when it launched in 2015. But on Face­book, the update solves a long­stand­ing orga­ni­za­tion prob­lem. It means final­ly being able to find that pic­ture of your friend’s dog from 2013, or the self­ie your mom post­ed from Mount Rush­more in 2009… with­out 20 min­utes of scrolling.

To make pho­tos search­able, Face­book ana­lyzes every sin­gle image uploaded to the site, gen­er­at­ing rough descrip­tions of each one. This data is pub­licly available—there’s even a Chrome exten­sion that will show you what Facebook’s arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence thinks is in each picture—and the descrip­tions can also be read out loud for Face­book users who are vision-impaired.

For now, the image descrip­tions are vague, but expect them to get a lot more pre­cise. Today’s announce­ment spec­i­fied the AI can iden­ti­fy the col­or and type of clothes a per­son is wear­ing, as well as famous loca­tions and land­marks, objects, ani­mals and scenes (gar­den, beach, etc.) Facebook’s head of AI research, Yann LeCun, told reporters the same func­tion­al­i­ty would even­tu­al­ly come for videos, too.

Face­book has in the past cham­pi­oned plans to make all of its visu­al con­tent searchable—especially Face­book Live. At the company’s 2016 devel­op­er con­fer­ence, head of applied machine learn­ing Joaquin Quiñonero Can­dela said one day AI would watch every Live video hap­pen­ing around the world. If users want­ed to watch some­one snow­board­ing in real time, they would just type “snow­board­ing” into Facebook’s search bar. On-demand view­ing would take on a whole new mean­ing.

There are pri­va­cy con­sid­er­a­tions, how­ev­er. Being able to search pho­tos for spe­cif­ic cloth­ing or reli­gious place of wor­ship, for exam­ple, could make it easy to tar­get Face­book users based on reli­gious belief. Pho­to search also extends Facebook’s knowl­edge of users beyond what they like and share, to what they actu­al­ly do in real life. That could allow for far more spe­cif­ic tar­get­ing for adver­tis­ers. As with every­thing on Face­book, fea­tures have their cost—your data.

11. Here’s some­thing worth not­ing while sift­ing through the 2016 elec­tion after­math: Sil­i­con Valley’s long right­ward shift became offi­cial in 2016. At least if you look at the cor­po­rate PACs of tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Face­book, and Ama­zon. Sure, the employ­ees tend­ed to still favor donat­ing to Democ­rats, although not as much as before (and not at all at Microsoft). But when it came to the cor­po­rate PACs Sil­i­con Val­ley was see­ing red. [34]

A new Oxfam study found that the just eight indi­vid­u­als – includ­ing tech titans Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zucker­berg, and Lar­ry Elli­son – own as much wealth as the poor­est half of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion [67]. So, you know, wealth inequal­i­ty prob­a­bly isn’t a super big pri­or­i­ty for their super PACs.

“Sil­i­con Val­ley Takes a Right Turn” by Thomas B. Edsall; The New York Times; 1/12/2017. [34]

In 2016, the cor­po­rate PACs asso­ci­at­ed with Microsoft [68], Face­book [69], Google [70] and Ama­zon [71] broke ranks with the tra­di­tion­al alle­giance of the broad tech sec­tor to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. All four donat­ed more mon­ey to Repub­li­can Con­gres­sion­al can­di­dates than they did to their Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nents.

As these tech­nol­o­gy firms have become cor­po­rate behe­moths, their con­cerns [72] over gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­to­ry pol­i­cy have inten­si­fied — on issues includ­ing pri­va­cy [73], tax­a­tion [74], automa­tion [75] and antitrust [76]. These are ques­tions on which they appear to view Repub­li­cans as stronger allies than Democ­rats.

In 2016, the PACs of these four firms gave a total of $3.6 mil­lion to House and Sen­ate can­di­dates [77]. Of that, $2.1 mil­lion went to Repub­li­cans, and $1.5 mil­lion went to Democ­rats. These PACs did not con­tribute to pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

The PACs stand apart from dona­tions by employ­ees in the tech­nol­o­gy [78] and inter­net [77] sec­tors. Accord­ing to OpenSe­crets, these employ­ees gave $42.4 mil­lion to Democ­rats and $24.2 mil­lion to Repub­li­cans.

In the pres­i­den­tial race, tech employ­ees (as opposed to cor­po­rate PACs) over­whelm­ing­ly favored Hillary Clin­ton over Don­ald Trump. Work­ers for inter­net firms [79], for exam­ple, gave her $6.3 mil­lion, and gave $59,622 to Trump. Employ­ees of elec­tron­ic man­u­fac­tur­ing [80] firms donat­ed $12.6 mil­lion to Clin­ton and $534,228 to Trump.

Most tech exec­u­tives and employ­ees remain sup­port­ive of Democ­rats, espe­cial­ly on social and cul­tur­al issues. The Repub­li­can tilt of the PACs at Microsoft, Ama­zon, Google and Face­book sug­gests, how­ev­er, that as these com­pa­nies’ domains grow larg­er, their bot­tom-line inter­ests are becom­ing increas­ing­ly aligned with the poli­cies of the Repub­li­can Par­ty.

In terms of polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions, Microsoft has led the right­ward charge. In 2008, the Microsoft PAC deci­sive­ly favored Democ­rats, 60–40, accord­ing to data com­piled [68] by the indis­pens­able Cen­ter for Respon­sive Pol­i­tics. By 2012, Repub­li­can can­di­dates and com­mit­tees had tak­en the lead, 54–46; and by 2016, the Microsoft PAC had become deci­sive­ly Repub­li­can, 65–35.

In 2016, the Microsoft PAC gave $478,818 to Repub­li­can House can­di­dates and $272,000 to Demo­c­ra­t­ic House can­di­dates. It gave $164,000 to Repub­li­can Sen­ate can­di­dates, and $75,000 to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate can­di­dates.

Microsoft employ­ees [81]’ con­tri­bu­tions fol­lowed a com­pa­ra­ble pat­tern. In 2008 and 2012, Microsoft work­ers were solid­ly pro-Demo­c­ra­t­ic, with 71 per­cent and 65 per­cent of their con­tri­bu­tions going to par­ty mem­bers. By 2016, the company’s work force had shift­ed gears. Democ­rats got 47 per­cent of their dona­tions.

This was not small change. In 2016 Microsoft employ­ees gave a total of $6.47 mil­lion.

A sim­i­lar pat­tern is vis­i­ble at Face­book.

The firm first became a notice­able play­er in the world of cam­paign finance in 2012 when employ­ees and the com­pa­ny PAC togeth­er made con­tri­bu­tions of $910,000. That year, Face­book employ­ees backed Democ­rats over Repub­li­cans 64–35, while the company’s PAC tilt­ed Repub­li­can, 53–46.

By 2016, when total Face­book con­tri­bu­tions reached $3.8 mil­lion, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic advan­tage in employ­ee dona­tions shrank to 51–47, while the PAC con­tin­ued to favor Repub­li­cans, 56–44.

While the employ­ees of the three oth­er most valu­able tech com­pa­nies, Alpha­bet (Google), Ama­zon and Apple, remained Demo­c­ra­t­ic in their giv­ing in 2016, at the cor­po­rate lev­el of Alpha­bet and Ama­zon — that is, at the lev­el of their PACs — they have not.

Google’s PAC [70] gave 56 per­cent of its 2016 con­tri­bu­tions to Repub­li­cans and 44 per­cent to Democ­rats. The Ama­zon PAC [71] fol­lowed a sim­i­lar path, favor­ing Repub­li­cans over Democ­rats 52–48. (Apple does not have a PAC.)

Tech giants can no longer be described as insur­gents chal­leng­ing cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca.

“By just about every mea­sure worth col­lect­ing,” Farhad Man­joo [82] of The Times wrote in Jan­u­ary 2016:

Amer­i­can con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies are get­ting larg­er, more entrenched in their own sec­tors, more pow­er­ful in new sec­tors and bet­ter insu­lat­ed against sur­pris­ing com­pe­ti­tion from upstarts.

These firms are now among the biggest of big busi­ness. In a 2016 USA Today rank­ing of the most valu­able com­pa­nies [83] world­wide, the top four were Alpha­bet, $554.8 bil­lion; Apple, $529.3 bil­lion; Microsoft, $425.4 bil­lion; and Face­book, $333.6 bil­lion. Those firms deci­sive­ly beat out Berk­shire Hath­away, Exxon Mobil, John­son & John­son and Gen­er­al Elec­tric.

In addi­tion to tech com­pa­nies’ con­cern about gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy on tax­a­tion, reg­u­la­tion and antitrust, there are oth­er sources of con­flict between tech firms and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Gre­go­ry Fer­en­stein [84], a blog­ger who cov­ers the tech indus­try, con­duct­ed a sur­vey of 116 tech com­pa­ny founders for Fast Com­pa­ny in 2015. Using data from a poll con­duct­ed by the firm Sur­vey­Mon­key [85], Fer­en­stein com­pared the views [84] of tech founders with those of Democ­rats, in some cas­es, and the views of the gen­er­al pub­lic, in oth­ers.

Among Ferenstein’s find­ings: a minor­i­ty, 29 per­cent, of tech com­pa­ny founders described labor unions as “good,” com­pared to 73 per­cent of Democ­rats. Asked “is mer­i­toc­ra­cy nat­u­ral­ly unequal?” tech founders over­whelm­ing­ly agreed.

Fer­en­stein went on:

One hun­dred per­cent of the small­er sam­ple of founders to whom I pre­sent­ed this ques­tion said they believe that a tru­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic econ­o­my would be “most­ly” or “some­what” unequal. This is a key dis­tinc­tion: Oppor­tu­ni­ty is about max­i­miz­ing people’s poten­tial, which founders tend to believe is high­ly unequal. Founders may val­ue cit­i­zen con­tri­bu­tions to soci­ety, but they don’t think all cit­i­zens have the poten­tial to con­tribute equal­ly. When asked what per­cent of nation­al income the top 10% would hold in such a sce­nario, a major­i­ty (67%) of founders believed that the rich­est indi­vid­u­als would con­trol 50% or more of total income, while only 31% of the pub­lic believes such an out­come would occur in a mer­i­to­crat­ic soci­ety.

One of the most inter­est­ing ques­tions posed by Fer­en­stein speaks to mid­dle and work­ing class anx­i­eties over glob­al com­pe­ti­tion:

In inter­na­tion­al trade pol­i­cy, some peo­ple believe the U.S. gov­ern­ment should cre­ate laws that favor Amer­i­can busi­ness with poli­cies that pro­tect it from glob­al com­pe­ti­tion, such as fees on import­ed goods or mak­ing it cost­ly to hire cheap­er labor in oth­er coun­tries (“out­sourc­ing”). Oth­ers believe it would be bet­ter if there were less reg­u­la­tions and busi­ness­es were free to trade and com­pete with­out each coun­try favor­ing their own indus­tries. Which of these state­ments come clos­est to your belief?

There was a large dif­fer­ence between tech com­pa­ny offi­cials, 73 per­cent of whom chose free trade and less reg­u­la­tion, while only 20 per­cent of Democ­rats sup­port­ed those choic­es.

Fer­en­stein also found that tech founders are sub­stan­tial­ly more lib­er­al on immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy than Democ­rats gen­er­al­ly. 64 per­cent would increase total immi­gra­tion lev­els, com­pared to 39 per­cent of Democ­rats. Tech exec­u­tives are strong sup­port­ers [86] of increas­ing the num­ber of high­ly trained immi­grants through the HB1 visa pro­gram.

Joel Kotkin, a fel­low in urban stud­ies at Chap­man Uni­ver­si­ty who writes about demo­graph­ic, social and eco­nom­ic trends, sees these dif­fer­ences as the source of deep con­flict with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.

In a provoca­tive August, 2015, col­umn [87] in the Orange Coun­ty Reg­is­ter, Kotkin wrote:

The dis­rup­tive force is large­ly Sil­i­con Val­ley, a nat­ur­al oli­garchy that now funds a par­ty tee­ter­ing toward pop­ulism and even social­ism. The fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tions, as Karl Marx would have not­ed, lie in the col­li­sion of inter­ests between a group that has come to epit­o­mize self-con­scious­ly pro­gres­sive mega-wealth and a mass base which is increas­ing­ly con­cerned about down­ward mobil­i­ty.

The tech elite, Kotkin writes, “far from desert­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, more like­ly will aim take to take it over.” Until very recent­ly, the

con­flict between pop­ulists and tech oli­garchs has been mut­ed, in large part due to com­mon views on social issues like gay mar­riage and, to some extent, envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. But as the social issues fade, hav­ing been “won” by pro­gres­sives, the focus nec­es­sar­i­ly moves to eco­nom­ics, where the gap between these two fac­tions is great­est.

Kotkin sees future par­ti­san machi­na­tion in cyn­i­cal terms:

One can expect the oli­garchs to seek out a modus viven­di with the pop­ulists. They could exchange a regime of high­er tax­es and reg­u­la­tion for ever-expand­ing crony cap­i­tal­ist oppor­tu­ni­ties and polit­i­cal pro­tec­tion. As the hege­mons of today, Face­book and Google, not to men­tion Apple and Ama­zon, have an intense inter­est in pro­tect­ing them­selves, for exam­ple, from antitrust leg­is­la­tion. His­to­ry is pret­ty clear: Hero­ic entre­pre­neurs of one decade often turn into the insid­er cap­i­tal­ists of the next.

In 2016, Don­ald Trump has pro­duced an upheaval with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty that shift­ed atten­tion away from the less explo­sive tur­moil in Demo­c­ra­t­ic ranks. . . .