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 The Attention of Merchants

Dr. Alex Wainer, professor of communication and media studies

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is facing much unwanted attention from members of Congress after news that a company, Cambridge Analytica, used access to Facebook users accounts to develop member profiles in order to solicit votes for Trump and other Republican presidential candidates. (Similar uses of members’ data was done during Pres. Obama’s 2012 campaign.)

The Facebook empire has grown so powerful because it is able to leverage information about its members to target advertising based on the user’s likes and has directed advertising to the member’s feed when it notices their browser is looking at various products.

The irony here is that Facebook receives this information as part of the deal when someone joins the social network. When I “like” a movie franchise or product, Facebook notes it and adds it to their profile of me becoming the perfect platform for directing advertising to its cooperative users.

This is chronicled in The Attention Merchants, a book by Columbia law professor Tim Wu, a history of advertising framed by the ever improving methods by which advertisers us hook to look, read, watch and listen to ads, from World War I recruiting posters, to magazines, radio, television and now, the gold mine that is the Web, where browser cookies allow advertisers to direct ads to your screens and follow you around.  Facebook’s genius was conscripting our information, freely, if naively given by us every time we click on certain items creating a consumer profile.  Wu notes, “Ultimately, the public had struck a grand bargain with Facebook—not exactly unknowingly, but not with full cognizance either. Having been originally drawn to Facebook with the lure of finding friends, no one seemed to notice that this new attention merchant had inverted the industry’s usual terms of agreement.”  There was now a de facto transaction that, in exchange for the benefits of connecting to friends, you give out information that can be used to sell stuff to you, and which was then used to sell you on political candidates.  There’s an elegant and inexorable logic of the marketplace in all of this, but should we really be surprised?

Social media users are implicated in such data exploitation and extricating ourselves from it could start with proactively checking the settings on Facebook’s often obscure interface.  But it may also be the start of serious government regulation of such behemoth digital empires as the public finally begins to see the dark side of these online services.

Dr. Alex Wainer is Professor of Communication & Media Studies in the School of Communication and Media. He is author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.