Tom Stangl

The way we communicate with each other is constantly changing. With advances in technology, it seems as if our machines are somehow reading our minds and presenting advertisements for products or services that we have been thinking about.

The machines aren’t reading our minds, software has been paying attention to what you look at.

My late father Arved, (aka “The Chief”) worked on cars and often told me “machines are stupid, they only know what you tell them.” The Chief wouldn’t understand the internet, but he would totally get the plumbing.

I recently saw “The Big Hack,” a documentary on Netflix. The two-hour film sought to explain how users of the internet and social media have been handing over personal information to firms who use the data to influence all sorts of behavior through manipulation.

Specifically, the film targeted Cambridge Analytica (CA), a data firm used by political parties all over the planet to influence elections. You might recall the company (now closed and bankrupt) got into trouble for misusing data purchased from Facebook. The firm helped Brexit supporters and was seen as key in the election of President Trump. Another branch of the company worked with governments to defeat the Taliban.

According to the documentary, CA collected thousands of “data points” on individuals, based largely on information volunteered by social media users. The film refers to psychological profiles created from personality “quizzes” that are popular on Facebook as a source of information.

After these data points are collected, campaigns identify people who can be persuaded and create targeted ads that appear in the news feeds on Facebook. The filmmakers make the case that “the persuadables” were targeted to vote one way — or not to vote at all.

A case can and should be made that people still have free will and individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions (or lack thereof), but the film made it sound like enough people (70,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio) were swayed to get the president elected.

A subplot of the movie followed Professor David Carroll fighting to get his data back from Cambridge Analytica. Carroll wasn’t successful in his quest before CA went bankrupt.

The film tackles some complex topics, but it is apparent that we are paying a high price for the use of free programs like Facebook and even the search giant Google. The currency that we are using is our privacy and identity, which have been high dollar commodities for some time, bought and sold with our implied consent. (At least I think that’s what the 24-page user agreement says, right?)

Pundits have argued that these giant tech firms need to be regulated or dismantled. After watching the movie, I have to agree. If a person can’t get a copy of the data that was “given” to Facebook and Google, something is indeed wrong.

The more we choose to have virtual interactions instead of meeting and talking with others in real life, the more susceptible we will be to manipulation. As we strive to become more enlightened, we become the stupid machines the Chief railed against, only knowing what we are told.

We need to wake up to the price we are paying to be manipulated before it is too late.

Alarmist? Maybe. No one ever said democracy would be easy.

As always, I welcome your comments. You can reach me by email at, telephone 715-268-8101 or write me at P.O. Box 424, Amery, WI, 54001.

Thanks for reading; I’ll keep in touch. Feel free to do the same.

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