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Thursday, 31 August 2017

The weaponisation of influence

The media is in the habit of putting out hooks that aim to grab our attention by flagging imminent threats, it’s true, so we’re used to being told to be scared of the future, but Mark Pesce is known for his solid grasp of that nebulous place we are all travelling toward at the speed of electrons. Or the speed of light.

This morning’s talk by Pesce was a Rising Minds event held at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Surry Hills. The small downstairs cinema was quite full and there were questions at the end of the talk, which was titled ‘The last days of reality’. A more complete version of the material contained in this morning’s talk will appear in an essay in the summer issue of Meanjin.

In 2011, Pesce told the audience, Facebook started curating the news feed because it had reached the limits of its economic growth. The company started developing user profiles to increase user engagement and exposure to advertising. It coupled profiling with machine learning, and the profile, Pesce said, is both observational and experimental. “Engagement is an algorithmic outcome.”

In 2015, Facebook demonstrated a capacity to alter the moods of its users, he went on. And in May this year it was revealed that the company had guided an advertiser to target vulnerable children on the platform.

Pesce labelled the way that social media is thus reaching deep into our lives as “the weaponization of influence”. It is a hyper-mediated world we live in, and machinery is always censoring our view of the world. These trends, combined with the rise of neuromarketing and augmented reality, are “warping the fabric of what we think is real”. We live, he said, in a post-real world.

As to Facebook’s promises to filter out “fake news”, responding to pressure from different parts of the community in the wake of new types of media players appearing in recent years, Pesce thinks that the company is effectively trapped in a fake news loop. “It can’t deprecate fake news too much because then engagement will drop,” he said. The result of that would be lower profits.

Pesce then turned his attention to the way that social media is altering the world outside the private sphere. He talked about Cambridge Analytica, a company which builds profiles of voters, and which uses the resulting information to influence people’s behaviour in polls. They know when a voter is most vulnerable, he said. “When there are aims beyond profit, the weaponization of influence takes on a different nature.”

As for the future? He said that Facebook is obsessed with augmented reality. “Facebook wants to rewrite the way we see the world,” he said. “The real world will be a reflection of what Facebook knows we want to see.” We are at the dawn of the post-real era, he went on, and the trick for everyone today is to learn how to live in this world. He pointed to Solid, an initiative by internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee, which is aimed at letting people exert control over their profiles.

Pesce opened this morning’s talk by painting a vivid word picture. He wanted to illustrate in a dramatic fashion what he intended to tell the audience during the talk. He told us to close our eyes for a moment. Imagine, he said, that you wake up in a dark room without knowing how you got there or where you are. Then, all of a sudden, you see a glowing pane of light. There is a chair, and you sit down in front of the light source. Then images start to resolve out of the light. A series of images. You react to each image as it appears, and your reactions are recorded by cameras and other instruments in the room. One image might make you feel happy. The next image revolts you. Each time you react, your responses are captured and stored. At the end of many hours of watching the screen, the light source goes black again and you enter into a deep sleep, exhausted by your labours. But the next day you wake up and sit in front of the light source again, and you see a new set of images. This time, however, the images you see make you happy. The room has “learned” from your responses and keeps you entertained by presenting only images that will cause a positive response in you.



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