Dark ads

The prominence of “fake news” has gained a lot of attention in the wake of the recent election. It may have been even worse than this. I could argue that you bring fake news on yourself. You receive fake news from a site such as Facebook or Twitter because you follow someone who posted the fake story. You contribute to the problem if you retweet or reshare. You may end up as a victim of such falsehoods, but at least, in this case, you can blame the individual you followed for leading you astray. It may eventually be possible to flag suspect stories much in the way Wikipedia now includes notices with stories that fail to satisfy certain standards.

What you may not realize is that you may be targeted in an effort to manipulate you in some way by a completely independent source. Facebook allows what are called “dark posts“. As I understand the dark post, it is essentially an ad the source sends to a subset of users. What is allowed as an “ad” appears to be much more open to interpretation than you might expect.  This NYTimes opinion piece by McKenzie Funk claims dark posts were used by the Republican presidential election committee to “micro-target” users either to encourage a vote for their candidate or to discourage those opposing their candidate from voting. The detail in the Funk article is helpful in explaining how this was done. This wmicro-targeting was based on a massive database accumulated on millions of us by Cambridge Analytica. Forbes takes a similar position. The Forbes article provides greater detail on the different approaches taken by the Democrats and Republicans, but while noting the greater use of micro-targeting by Republicans provides less information regarding how this was done.

I assume must of us recognize that the social media ads we see are based on our own behavior. In theory, we supposedly see ads we want to see. The dark-ad feels different to me. I wonder what disclosure is required and if you or I received these ads whether we realized the source. That message that is required at the end of television ads is certainly absent or less prominent when we are targeted online. Without an awareness of the source we have less information to interpret intent.

So, as educators, we attempt to develop critical thinking skills in preparing students for what they will encounter in the “less friendly” real world. How distrustful should we assume we must prepare future citizens to be?