Could Creepy Online Tracking Predispose People to Conspiratorial and Paranoid Beliefs?
This week National Geographic caught up with the teenager who thought he had discovered a lost Maya city by applying fringe-history style star correlations to a cherry-picked selection of Maya settlements in order to trace the constellations on the ground. William Gadoury, 15, told the magazine that he did not plan to let the facts get in the way of his certain belief that he found a lost city. He is looking to raise $100,000 to travel to Mexico to prove that his lost city exists despite widespread consensus that his “city” is actually an abandoned agricultural field, likely one used for marijuana.
I refrained from criticizing Gadoury in my initial coverage of his claims because he is 15, but Gadoury is obviously steeped in the beliefs of the paranoid fringe of archaeology. He believes, for example, that scientists are trying to protect their paradigms from his breakthrough understanding that the Aztec, Maya, and Inca all built their cities according to constellations: “I think scientists are jealous,” he said. “Sometimes they are scared of new ideas. They’re afraid to have their established ideas criticized.”
Where do teenagers get the paranoid idea that academia is trying to suppress new ideas? There is, of course, the obvious source: fringe history. It’s the message Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, and their ilk send weekly. But I wonder if our everyday experiences aren’t priming us as a society to form paranoid and conspiratorial beliefs almost reflexively.
I thought about that when my computer told me I really needed to watch a movie trailer about some gelatinous creature that wears the shell of pickup truck as an exoskeleton.
Why would I be interested in what seems to be a kids’ movie about a monster living inside a pickup truck? That was the question I asked when a leading movie site told me that the trailer for the January 2017 movie Monster Trucks was “recommended for you.” The other day I wrote about some horror movies that I watched, and I made the observation that it seemed that the opaque algorithms that feed content had decided that I needed to see more movies starring Lucas Till. I presented that as a joke, mostly, but since writing that it seems that my computer really is spying on me. Guess who is starring in Monster Trucks. And some movie called All Superheroes Must Die that my computer tells me I should buy or stream. It’s getting weird now.
Granted, there isn’t really a way for me to distinguish between three possibilities: (a) my computer is spying on me and making some questionable assumptions, (b) a confirmation bias in which I am simply noticing more of a relatively steady phenomenon, and (c) the guy is just everywhere right now.
It's a silly thing, of course, but it’s far from the only time something like this has happened to me. When one of my cats died last year, my computer figured that out and spent weeks serving up advertisements for memorial supplies. That one certainly wasn’t a coincidence. It got to the point that it was upsetting to see blasé advertisements for urns twenty times a day, even after I tried flushing my cookies. Apparently a lot of data lives in the cloud now and can show up in unexpected places, across devices. Similarly, since I know Spanish and occasionally write back to Spanish-speaking correspondents in Spanish, my computer has wrongly decided that I am Latino, and from time to time will spend weeks at a time delivering ads—text and video!—in Spanish that try to appeal to me as a Latino. It’s interesting to see how different ads are for other demographics. Apparently advertisers think Latinos all live in multigenerational households and have large numbers of kids.
“Although users may expect that many of their online activities are anonymous, the architecture of the Internet allows multiple parties to collect data and compile user profiles with various degrees of identifying information,” Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky wrote in a 2012 article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology.
I wonder if the fact that our computers spy on us doesn’t contribute to the rise of conspiracy theories. It must make it more logical to assume that strange powers are controlling everything when unknowable algorithms really are trying to control what we see and how we behave. Does this make people more paranoid? I wasn’t able to find any research into this, but last fall Walter Kirn wrote an article for the Atlantic about his own growing sense of paranoia after discovering that all of his smart devices were monitoring his words and using them to deliver advertising in increasingly creepy ways:
Some of these disconcerting prompts were harder to explain. For example, the appearance on my Facebook page, under the heading "People You May Know," of a California musician whom I'd bumped into six or seven times at AA meetings in a private home. In accordance with AA custom, he had never told me his last name nor inquired about mine. And as far as I knew, we had just one friend in common, a notably solitary older novelist who avoided computers altogether. I did some research in an online technology forum and learned that by entering my number into his smartphone's address book (compiling phone lists to use in times of trouble is an AA ritual), the musician had probably triggered the program that placed his full name and photo on my page.
Kirn compared situations like this to the tinfoil hat brigade of the 1980s and 1990s, and even mentioned thinking that he’d seen black helicopters when he started trying to trace back how his machines knew everything he was doing. He tried to find out if the government could do what advertisers do, and he concluded that the paranoid fringe might have the meanings and motivations incorrect, but there is certainly a reflection in conspiracy theories of a real life spying network that turns all of us into subjects: “There are so many ghosts in our machines—their locations so hidden, their methods so ingenious, their motives so inscrutable—that not to feel haunted is not to be awake. That's why paranoia, even in its extreme forms, no longer seems to me so much a disorder as a mode of cognition with an impressive track record of prescience.”
I would be very interested in research that looked into whether the rise in belief in conspiracy theories could be connected to the experience of “everyday paranoia” about the ways we’re being spied on, monitored, and influenced, ways that simply didn’t exist just 15 years ago.
6/4/2016 10:38:45 am
Look how America spied on the German Government.
6/5/2016 12:47:54 am
There are real life conspiracies in existence existing outside the fantasy rubbish,
6/4/2016 11:07:26 am
Jodi Dean wrote the first in a small wave of cultural studies of UFOs in the 1990s and early 2000s (basically, the X-Files made it ok to publish such stuff, I think). Her book Aliens in America, was published in 1998. I personally don't think it is very good, though there are some interesting ideas in it. It spends a lot of time on a handful of abduction cases, and honestly I think that is a non-profitable rabbit hole. She does some symbolic work contrasting Apollo Astronauts with abductees. Perhaps I'd be more impressed today, but the feeling I got at the time is that it was a repurposing of her dissertation work on gender into a trendy topic, without a lot of deep background in the UFO or conspiracy theory community.
6/4/2016 11:09:18 am
I know what your writing about. During the last election cycle, I was working for a state university. When I checked my work E-mail daily, I was getting messages from the current governor not telling me to re-elect him, but pointing out how good a job he and the other elected state officials of his party had done over the last four years. I had never signed up to receive his E-mail. My co-workers all were receiving the same E-mails. When I attempted to get them stopped, I was ignored, finally I just marked them as Spam.
6/4/2016 11:55:25 am
Check out the last several episodes of last season's South Park for a similar treatment of ads taking control of our lives. Naturally its over the top, but very entertaining.
6/4/2016 12:12:02 pm
Season 19 Episodes 8 & 9
6/4/2016 01:04:01 pm
At the risk of starting an echo chamber, I've had similar experiences, and recently the number of them has increased substantially. I don't know if it's because I'm more aware of, and annoyed by, the things, or if something else is going on. Why would I suddenly be seeing ads for Craftsman work benches in my email, Newsfeed, and Twitter page? I only looked them up once to get specs.
6/4/2016 01:36:08 pm
Same thing happened to me Jason. I bought a very specific part for my Land Rover on ebay. Now every ad is Land Rover related. One part, one time.
6/4/2016 03:26:21 pm
Not to be contrarian, but I feel the opposite. I've assumed/known for so long that NSA and other agencies are hoovering all electronic communication that the dumb bot-driven ad stuff is almost comforting in being open. The cause and effect are obvious, and actually give me more feeling of control, vs. the invisible sniffers that I know are potentially surveilling us all, but don't let us know.
6/4/2016 08:42:54 pm
The problem is trying to determine when it's rational to be paranoid about it. When I was working on my translation of the Akhbar al-zaman, I was doing a lot of Googling of Islamic terminology. Not long after, I started getting strange clicking sounds on my land line and weird little blips in my online services. I won't lie and tell you I wasn't thinking that searching for Islamic terms got me put on some government watch list. I don't know what the problem was (no one ever admitted that there ever was a service issue) but after I finished the translation it faded away. It wouldn't be hard to become paranoid if situations like that occurred regularly.
6/4/2016 11:12:17 pm
I've had similar effects with my theological research and noted they ended after I called my state department contact......
6/5/2016 06:23:28 pm
I have that concern every time I google Islamic term. I can only hope that anyone who reads my search history will notice that I'm just as likely to google Krishna or Shangdi.
6/7/2016 08:05:32 am
...or perhaps you are just incredibly paranoid? Phone-noises and 'blips' (?) on online services are rather common.
6/5/2016 08:21:07 am
The type of monitoring goes back further than World War I. As first established the Royal Mail consisted of the Post Office, the Secret Office and the Deciphering Branch. The job of the Secret Office was to open and copy the mail transported by the Post Office, the Deciphering Branch was bought in only if the mail was encrypted.
6/4/2016 03:55:15 pm
What you said about the adware is something I've taken for granted. Whether it's simple online searches or even looking for specific videos on YouTube, you'll inevitably see "Recommended for you" popping up all the time. I can understand Kirn's reaction, but I'm not concerned enough to adapt the "It's not paranoia if it's true" mentality.
6/4/2016 10:58:41 pm
"Only Me" I think you're right, in that Gadoury needs to understand the Scientific Method first hand and at an early age.
6/5/2016 10:24:27 am
We can only hope he finds, and admits, that he was wrong. He's already drunk the anti-academia Kool Aid so it's more likely he will find nothing and create a theory of how the lack of evidence proves that it was hidden or destroyed to protect the existing "mainstream paradigm" (or some-such other nonsense).
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
6/5/2016 02:22:53 pm
Gadoury is more than young enough that he might change. It's easier for your worldview to shift when you're 15 than when you're Scott Wolter's age.
6/5/2016 02:38:59 pm
Not the Comte de Saint Germain and Uncle Ron:
6/4/2016 04:37:30 pm
The teenager on NatGeo could choose a dozen safer ways to go get some pot from a field than flying off to Mexico, or some other place, to do it. It might make him more paranoid from ingesting it though.
6/4/2016 06:19:03 pm
Every 15 year old questions authority. Firing history just gives the rational for those youngsters interested in the field. I loved ufos as a kid and thought the gift was hiding something which is typical is a teenager. And remember the old adage just because your paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.
6/4/2016 07:52:25 pm
6/4/2016 08:45:39 pm
It's not really the ads that are concerning--I've been around the internet long enough to realize that if I look at something on Amazon it will show up in advertisements shortly thereafter. I also use ad blocking software. The disconcerting thing is the way that it's moving beyond tracking product searches to correlate data across different activities, even those that aren't directly tied to consumption.
6/4/2016 09:03:01 pm
Yeah, it is uncomfortable. But starting by cutting off the trackers where ever you can helps choke off the flow of information you're feeding them just through everyday browsing. Everything has value to an advertiser when it comes to trying to generate a higher view to click ratio and they don't care how creepy or how inappropriate it may end up being.
6/4/2016 11:48:30 pm
Here's where I chime in on the open-source ticket and say; get rid of Windows if you're using a non-Mac, and just get rid of a Mac in general.
6/5/2016 12:49:17 am
Get rid of your phoney pseudo-scepticism, that's what I say, Clint Knapp.
6/5/2016 06:29:13 pm
Quiet, GIGO. Go play in your room. The grown ups are talking.
6/5/2016 10:32:45 am
Chrome is the worst, and the ad blockers don't work at all. I got really sick of having pop ups appear to the point I could not even see the actual site. So I changed to Mozilla Firefox, and then use Ixquick as my search engine (just make it you home page). Ixquick is great, even regular ads that show up on a google search (the top rung search results) disappear, and I can finally go to places like amazon and ebay and finally see what I want to see. You can use Ixquick with any browser, but I find the combination of firefox and Ixquick seem to work best (and it's free). Check it out by googling Ixquick.
6/5/2016 11:58:45 pm
So, as someone who studies this stuff, let me start by saying it's not at all clear conspiracy theories are any more popular now than they were, say, fifty years ago. Joe Uscinski and Joe Parents' book 'American Conspiracy Theories' (OUP, 2014) goes some way to suggest that conspiracy theories are less and less popular/common than they were a few decades ago; what we're likely seeing is the appearance of more belief in conspiracy theories simply by virtue of them a) being easier to find out about and b) they make for entertaining soundbites in the media.
6/6/2016 03:17:48 am
Data-mining isn't spying, because it's about noting trends, not specific details. Though you might actually have triggered some monitoring, Jason; right now the Department of Homeland Security is paranoid about anything to do with Arabic or Islam because they apparently never got the memo that terrorists can come from any lingual, ethnic, or racial group, including old white dudes (Timothy McVae, anyone?), but even if you did, you were working on a legit project, and I hate to say it...you're a white guy. You probably won't see anything more than you have because of that.
6/7/2016 08:22:44 am
100k to check out a Mexican field?! Is he going to be airlifted there by trained swans?
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