In the 2016 US presidential election, a British company, Cambridge Analytica, was hired by Trump to aid in his campaign. The company scraped Facebook for over 5,000 data points on every US citizen to assist in the process of narrowing focus and providing targeted advertising built and designed to sway, at times even targeted at a single individual. The whistle was blown on Google for pushing positive references of Hillary Clinton to top search results in an effort to sway undecided voters. It’s well-known that much of the so-called mainstream media has a leftward slant and actively promotes leftist agendas and politicians. It is well-known that Fox News takes a slant to the right. The Koch brothers, worth many billions of dollars, are known to have financially supported many right-wing and libertarian causes. Other large corporations financially support many things in politics that pay dividends in helping give them unfair advantages in the marketplace. George Soros contributes heavily to leftist causes in a way that many would not exist without him.
Some of these instances have been effective in a very frightening way. It can feel like stolen elections, unfair political sway, and dirty politics. Everyone likes to complain about the amount of influence big business has in politics, but it seems that’s all most people do. When it comes to supporting people in elections, they typically choose the very ones responsible for the problem.
All of that said, the concerns raised over corporate influence in politics ignores certain crucial considerations:
1) The levels of participation from both left and right tends to even things out a little bit.
2) Focusing on how data has been nefariously collected and used in elections, has taken away the focus on the fact that it is available for use by anyone that wants to target people for other things; their political beliefs, for example, could be targeted by government for silencing opposition.
3) Corporate influence would die away if there was nothing to influence — if there were no favors politicians had to sell.
Yes, it’s a bad situation when large businesses have such enormous influence in the policy decisions of government, as well as in which politicians and which agendas come into power. It’s disconcerting, but it is reversible.
When an online platform serves up targeted political advertising, it really isn’t any different from what we’re used. It is what advertising has always sought to do. There are just better tools to do it with now. People, by and large, are not so weak-minded that they are zombies looking for someone to tell them what they need to believe and whom they need to support. People might see an advertisement that might trigger them in a manipulative way, but ultimately, people are sentient enough to decide whether to accept what they see or disregard it. Honestly, when you see an advertisement with which you disagree, is it really going to change your mind? For that matter, if search results are manipulated to place some results first, are people so easily fooled as to think there is only the one side to a story or policy?
I’m going to tell you a little secret: Businesses are operated by people. People have agendas and beliefs. It is impossible for a business not to have some sort of slant from the people who operate it.
Choose your slant.
If you don’t like Google’s political slant, choose another search engine. If you don’t want to hear conservative talk from Fox News, watch CNN. If you see a political ad with which you disagree, simply ignore it and go on with your life. If you’re concerned with undecided voters being manipulated into a belief system with which you disagree, then perform your own campaign of talking to people personally, and use platforms to write and publish your thoughts. In this day and age, everyone can be a political pundit.
When the depths of how Cambridge Analytica obtained information on every American citizen was reported, it was extremely frightening. I am far less concerned that the data was used to target people for political advertising than I am about other ways in which the data can be used. It might be that such data could be gathered not just by Cambridge Analytica but also by any other company or entity (like government). If the data is available, why can’t anyone else obtain it? In what other ways might they use it?
That sort of security concern should make everyone fearful — not of political advertising but of how their data might be used against them. It is important to remember that this data was gathered through Facebook, and everyone who uses Facebook gave up this data willingly in the user agreement that no one ever reads. We’ve all been foolish and probably did not conceive of this level of abuse of data, but we did give our permission.
The most important thing to remember is that none of this would ever be a concern if for one thing. If government and politicians have no favors for sale, then no one has any favors to buy. We would have no concern about businesses trying to influence government if government really couldn’t do much of anything to have an effect. We have made government far too powerful an entity, and as a result, we have created a situation where those with the most money have the most influence. It’s our own fault, really. We gave away our rights and freedoms so that they could be bought and sold like a commodity by our own government. In order to change that, we need to take the power back away from those who abuse it so terribly. We need to tremendously reduce the footprint of our government.
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