Opening with one of the key questions of our time, How do we know what's true?, Josh Fox, the Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated creator of the documentary that started the anti-fracking movement, Gasland, traces the arc of propaganda and misinformation from 9/11 to Trump from the perspective of the front lines in his debut book and new solo performance, "The Truth Has Changed" (Seven Stories Press, 2018). From 9/11 and the Iraq war, to fracking and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to Hurricane Sandy, to relentless smear campaigns against climate scientists, to the fight for 100 percent renewable energy, to Standing Rock, to the 2016 presidential campaign, to Cambridge Analytica, "The Truth Has Changed" mines Josh’s personal experiences to examine their impact on democracy and on the collective psyche of the United States.
The below excerpt, "The Ocean Inside You'," is from "The Truth Has Changed," the new book by Josh Fox, published by Seven Stories Press on September 11, 2018. Fox's solo performance, also called The Truth Has Changed, will tour nationally this fall to 40 venues in 23 Congressional districts. For more information,visit www.thetruthhaschangedtour.com.
In 2014, a young grad student from Warsaw named Michal Kosinski and some friends at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre made a huge discovery. He could map your precise behavioral psychological profile to Facebook based on what you “liked.”
In the field of behavioral psychology, psychometrics are behavioral characteristics that can serve as predictors. Who you really are deep down and how you are going to behave. They are like currents in the ocean; you can see how something or someone is going to flow.
In fact, the acronym for the basic psychological traits that make up every human is OCEAN. O-C-E-A-N. As it turns out, you have an ocean inside you, and it tells us a lot about who you are. O for openness. How open are you to new ideas and to the world? C for conscientiousness. How meticulous or anal are you? E for extroversion. How much do you like people—how outgoing are you? A—agreeableness. How considerate are you and cooperative? And N, my favorite, neuroticism. How much are you an anxious, worried wreck? These five traits can give us your intimate psychological portrait.
But what Kosinski figured out was he could take behavioral psych data and plot it up against Facebook.
He developed something called the “My Personality App.” And just for kicks, just for fun, he got some of his friends to fill these questionnaires out. First a few hundred, but it went viral and hundreds of thousands of people filled them out. Kosinski matched that questionnaire data up against people’s Facebook profiles. Facebook told him what kinds of things we liked or didn’t like. And Kosinski mapped your OCEAN personality against your Facebook personality. And voilà, he could tell what your psychometric personality was from looking at Facebook alone. You no longer had to divulge your personality secrets. Facebook betrayed them for you. And he started to be able to predict people’s future behavior based on that model. He famously said, “If I know 70 of your likes on Facebook, that’s enough to outdo what your friends know about you. If I know 150 likes that you clicked on Facebook, I know you better than your parents know you.” And at 300 likes, Kosinski intimated, the algorithm knows you better than you know yourself.
The day comes, he publishes his results and he gets two phone calls. A threatened lawsuit and a job offer, he told a German magazine, both of them from Facebook.
Now your personality is in the matrix. You are telling your story to it.
And Google does this, too.
We knew already that Google was targeting certain people in certain areas. It’s called addressable-ad technology. But don’t forget, Google knows everything you are searching for. What you know, what you don’t know, and what you want, on an intimate level. And you buy your quest. With your credit card and all that data, the algorithm is being tipped off to all the things that you personally crave.
How deep is the ocean? What can it predict?
It’s a trope in marketing, it goes like this: “If we get them when they’re six months old, we have them as customers for life.” So Target, the superstore, actually created a program to predict which of its customers were pregnant, to market to them while their offspring were in utero. The story goes that based on their Google search data Target sent maternity guides to this one house in Michigan, and the father in the house went ballistic. He assaulted his local Target’s manager, waving these maternity brochures in the air, saying, “Why are you trying to convince my daughter, who is only seventeen, to have babies?” And a few weeks later, he calls up and says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize. She was already pregnant.” Target knew this seventeen-year-old was pregnant before her dad did, based on her Google searches.
How deep is the OCEAN? Will it tell you no lies?
What kind of person are you? What kind of Democrat or Republican are you? Well, somehow, Cambridge Analytica got hold of the model, and harvested data from hundreds of millions of people, and started to use it to target specific, political messages to specific people. Do you remember when I got different Google results in Pennsylvania than in New York? This was as if every single person’s politics were being revealed by where they were, who they were, and what they were like on the inside.
This is based on you. Every single piece of information filtered through your personal algorithm. Your IP address, your Facebook feed. The men behind the algorithmic curtain can determine what you see and then profoundly influence what you do. And this has developed faster than the speed of morality.
Facebook actually had a way that advertisers could target certain things to certain races. If you were advertising an apartment on Facebook, you could specify that only white people—no black people—could see those posts. Twenty-first-century Jim Crow. And no one would know. Maybe that was the point.
It goes much further than even that. Every single major corporation is amassing this data. So that they can tailor what you see online specifically to you.
There are at least nine companies in America that have and sell this data. Have you heard of these companies?
Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, Acxiom, and Recorded Future. They’ve heard of you! They know you better than you know yourself. And they’re selling your data. Every time you click those terms and conditions, every single time, you’re letting them into your Internet DNA.
They’re making reports on you all the time. Because, on one level, your cell phone is a constantly evolving, deepening, more and more profound psychological data test that you’re filling out all the time. Everywhere you go, everything that you buy, everything that you do, you’re leaving psychological tracks. Every one of your movements in the real world and the cyber world.
You are a constant cascade of statistics flowing through the machine.
And you are in a box, a category. Are you a “Millennial weekend psychopharmaceutical user?” Or a “Homebound thrifty senior who posts about cats and the environment?” Are you “New Age/organic lifestyle with patchouli on back order from Etsy,” or “Biker/Hell’s Angels into ’80s TV memorabilia?” “Member of five or more online shopping sites,” “people with pellet stoves,” “hypochondriacs that book doctor’s appointments after doing a lot of medical googling,” “those who have credit at a low-end grocery store,” “collectors of fetishistic Elvis tchotchkes”?
On and on. Household, race and ethnicity, surname, method of payment, number of orders, loans, financial data, presence of an elderly parent who is over seventy-five, presence of young children in the household with Xboxes, employed, white collar, unemployed, blue collar, work at home.
Three kids in after-school athletics searching for plane tickets to South America alarm set to wake up at 5:30 snoozes three times every morning has two weeks off a year . . .
Early pregnancy termination, watches John McCain speeches, old Marx Brothers movies, texts and googles at the same time, seventeen years old ordering acne medication . . .
Mole removed from left side, speaks Chinese, fender bender 9:45 p.m., types sixty words a minute, skin cancer screening in three weeks, reads Danielle Steel and The Da Vinci Code . . .
Searched cul-de-sac, Amy Schumer, Chuck Schumer, Sasha Grey, pinot noir discounts, stays up late looking at pictures of homemade aircraft, Connecticut, $66K a year . . .
Buys toilet paper online and lesbian S and M porn while searching eHarmony for extramarital affairs. We know you. We know you. Heavy whiskey drinker, donates to animal rights causes late at night, watches penis enlargement videos, assault rifles, drives a ’99 Hyundai, sexts with coworkers, four kids, divorced, pro-fracking Kasich voter, leaves the house at 1 a.m. to go to the strip club on Route 97 three to four times a week, lost ten teeth to infection, twenty-three, one credit short of college graduation, purchased yoga pants and yoga mats, googles yoga classes but doesn’t sign up, two cats named Stanley and Blanche, underweight, on Tinder, studio apartment, waxes legs, texts over one hundred times a day, hair products, $16K a year.
We know you, we know you. We know what you dream about doing, we know what your sexual fantasies and insecurities are, we know your biases, we know your insides. What you think you are doing in private you are doing in front of all of us, all the time. All the things you regret. All the things you are proud of. What you post, what you promote, what you believe. We know you. We know you so well.
We spend all our time obsessing about you. Perfecting your personal algorithm to sell you to the highest bidder.
You’re not just 70 percent water and tissue and a bag of bones, you’re an open ocean of information.
The data swarms and dives like Niagara Falls.
Cambridge Analytica has amassed four to five thousand data points on every adult American.
And Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica, famously came out, just a few weeks before the election, and announced that Donald Trump was using their services. Trump canvassers in Michigan and Wisconsin would go from household to household. Now, they didn’t just know your political leanings or party affiliation. The app told them who you were psychologically, with suggestions on how to tailor the conversation to the personality types of their target voters. Real, live addressable-ad tech. The app told them who you are, not just demographically—psycho-graphically. Trump and Cambridge Analytica knew you better than you knew yourself.
The demographic river that is flowing toward the Democrats—dammed and rerouted.
So on Facebook they could target ads against Hillary Clinton specifically pointed at black men only, and no one else would see them playing up that Hillary was a racist. Facebook even created a specific search pegged to the words “Jew hater.” But unless you searched for or were a Jew hater you couldn’t see it. These are called “dark posts.” And they could manipulate your Google searches.
Don’t like that? Too bad. The Internet is doing that to you every day. Four to five thousand data points on every American.
The Internet knows your sickness, but it doesn’t give you a cure. A collective cure. It gives your disease right back to you. Like an addiction, you get your mirror, falling toward you.
In fact, in the future, most newspaper articles will be written by machines. AI is already writing a lot of what you see in the newspaper. But it will be cheaper for AI to write five thousand stories that go to five thousand subscribers than for a publisher to pay one journalist who can write one that’s actually true. It will say something like, “You remember that it was cloudy on the day of your graduation, well, the Trump administration is facing similar storms this week . . .” That kind of thing. FAKE NEWS FOR YOU! FAKE NEWS FOR YOU! EVERYBODY GETS FAKE NEWS! A fake story for every “real” you!
CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX! John Podesta likes to have sex with young boys and code word “pizza”! Or GASLAND is a LIE and EVERYTHING JOSH FOX SAYS IS UNTRUE.
In certain places on the Internet, that IS what is true.
You won’t find the New York Times or Washington Post, actual journalism, until page four of your Google search. Buried wayyyyy down at the bottom. Real journalism sunk with an algorithmic Corexit to the bottom of the feed.
This is the balkanization of truth.
The psycho-crats have taken over.
But when Alexander Nix announced that he was helping Trump, he also said something that has implications far, far beyond any one election, any one political moment. He announced that in the future, our children will not understand the concept of mass marketing/mass communication. No more universal stories, you know? Every piece of data is going to be specifically targeted at you.
In the future, each of you will get your own slogan.
No more, as Shakespeare wrote about the theater, “all our minds transfigured so together.”
This is the new narrative. You get you, over and over again. Like the corporation speaking to you out of the mirror.
And let me tell you, the truth here is that we did this to us. This was Facebook, this was Google, this was American. And there is nothing that the “Russians bots” did that multinational oil companies haven’t been doing for more than a decade. We created a universe in which your truth is yours only. Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer, Americans.
You see only what they want you to see, which is what you want you to see. You are perpetually stuck up there at three thousand feet, the oil and toxicity floating on the OCEAN just looks like pretty sunshine lapping at the waves. You can’t see the toxicity.
You see, 9/11 was a shared event. It happened to all of us.
These people know YOUR 9/11, whatever it is. They know if that girl rejected you in the eighth grade. They know if you’re an angry white man, or a neurotic Asian woman. They know your wounds. They know your trauma. They know your scars.
They’re counting them. And they tailor that message to your vulnerability exclusively.
So what Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart did to me when I toured GASLAND, Cambridge Analytica, through Google and Facebook, figured out how to do to 200 million people. A smear campaign against reality itself.
I know, I was one of their beta tests. Look what they are doing to the Parkland kids now.
No longer the crude, costly method of tailing a single person around the country. Now they could get your intimate details, group them, advertise to them. It is as if they are following you around. Following millions of people around. Harassing your psyche. Learning your weaknesses, putting you through the wringer. A fear campaign aimed at everyone and everything, the fears that can push the electorate to where they want it to go.
Climb. Climb. Climb.
The Industrial Age left 150 years of pollution in the ground and centuries of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere. Pools of toxic chemicals in the actual earth, underneath the crust. To take all of that toxicity out, 150 years’ worth of toxicity, is probably going to be impossible.
But, you see, this is another level of pollution. Digital pollution. Toxic data everywhere. Remember that guy who drove all the way from North Carolina with an AR-15 and burst into the pizza place and shot it up, yelling, “Where are the kids?!” That’s the toxic cyber world invading the real world.
The cyber world is its own cyber truth. It may not have any relationship to analog truth. That’s a world where climate change really doesn’t exist. It’s a whole planet on which science is irrelevant.
And when the truth is lost in the cyberstorm, the men behind the algorithmic curtain get what they want. And right now, they’re winning.
First it was the election in Kenya in 2013. Then the Ukraine in 2014. Then Brexit. Then Mexican elections, Brazil impeachment, Malaysian and Australian elections. Cambridge Analytica’s hands across the world. And then, in that wilderness of mirrors, that haze when all of our individual truths pushed us into different corners of reality, America elects a racist, authoritarian, anti-science, climate-change-denying Cheeto.
And yes, one Saturday night at the stroke of midnight, Facebook, in the ultimate gesture of shutting the barn doors after the horses have run away, banned Cambridge Analytica.
But what you didn’t read in the New York Times is that Cambridge Analytica has had a contract with the State Department since March 2017. A year. The objective: to influence elections in dozens of countries around the world. A year’s worth of psychographic training.
Is Facebook going to kick out the State Department?
Then, in March 2018, Cambridge Analytica announced to the world that they were bankrupt and closing their doors. In the same month, however, practically the exact same board of directors and investors formed a brand-new company with the same mission. Emerdata.
Because long after the theatrics and the bad acting of Zuckerberg and Congress, these tools of influence will remain. They’re like the bomb. Part of our lives now. Of course, they want you to forget about them. They’re more effective that way.
Presidents may come and go, but the data is unimpeachable.
How do you know what’s true? How can you differentiate between a progressive-sounding Russian troll saying, “You’re using Russians to avoid looking at America,” from a progressive-sounding American troll saying, “You’re using Russians to avoid looking at America”?
And who gets paid better per hour? Isn’t that the whole American dream right there? Hope looking out on the horizon? And now, our heads forced down, staring, like Narcissus, at our own reflections in the palm-sized liquid crystal pools where we drown.