The fear of Facebook-facilitated mind control appears to have died down. Cambridge Analytica, the firm that used Facebook data to build psychographic profiles of voting populations, has folded. Facebook’s user metrics and share price have recovered. But the initial furor over just how much data is being collected and how it’s being used was reminiscent of previous periodic  scandals in the advertising industry, of which Facebook is an intrinsic part. Throughout the 20th century, as new media extended the reach of advertising, the industry has had to both tout its necessity and defend itself against seeming too effective.

As culture became more saturated with advertising generally, conspiratorial concerns were raised about commercial brainwashing, psychological tricks in ads that rendered human decision-making irrelevant and branded products irresistible. Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, an exposé of the then-burgeoning use of motivational research and depth psychology in the advertising industry, warned of how “people’s subsurface desires, needs, and drives were probed in order to find their points of vulnerability … Once these points of vulnerability were isolated, the psychological hooks were fashioned and baited and placed deep in the merchandising sea for unwary prospective customers.” In 1972, Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction took this premise further, warning of the hidden messages in ads that could manipulate consumers’ minds. The Facebook scandal is in this tradition, with algorithms and data analytics replacing sinister depth psychologists and hidden words in photos of ice cubes as the agents of our undoing.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was in some ways a sustained advertisement for the idea that targeted ads really work

Outrage at the revelation of these techniques has no correlation with their actual effectiveness; it has always been difficult to establish whether and how ads work. Instead the outrage seems like a mask for a deeper ambivalence about social mind control. Social media have made it more plain how our selves are shaped by all sorts of omnipresent social influences, making them more palpable as our lives become even more deeply imbricated. The existentialist idea of the self-willed individual, so central in the 20th century as a counterweight to mass consumerism and totalitarianism, has become increasingly untenable; advertising both intensifies and assuages that loss. It suggests that we are, after all, individuals who need correction, even as it lumps us into demographics and tries to sell us on standardized fantasies.

Raising the specter of social media mind control through algorithmic manipulation and ad targeting may have the opposite effect from what such critics may hope. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was in some ways a sustained advertisement for the idea that targeted ads really work and that Facebook really is a space where people can be molded rather than persuaded. For advertisers, that merely ratifies their sense of Facebook’s usefulness, and probably helps the platform make the case that it should be charging more. For Facebook users, the scandal serves as a reminder of the site’s affective powers: an advertisement for how well Facebook knows what we want and how to make us feel. The chance that opening up Facebook on our phone might manipulate our mood is precisely what lots of users are hoping for.

This kind of advertising approach flatters our self-importance by suggesting we have a stable core of personality that’s worth manipulating, no matter how vague and conflicted it might seem to us. Under cultural conditions that render the self “ontologically insecure,” to borrow R.D. Laing’s and Anthony Giddens’s phrase, advertisers, in trying to seize upon our true hidden desires, offer hopeful proof that we actually have them — individual, idiosyncratic desires that speak to our uniqueness even as they are depicted as vulnerable to programmatic manipulation.

And that manipulation itself can be regarded as a labor-saving efficiency: What if conformity was that easy? What if we didn’t have to worry about fitting in — what if we could simply watch TV or use Facebook and we would be reshaped automatically into a normal ordinary citizen? Ad targeting presumes that one doesn’t change minds by engaging them with arguments; instead one creates an environment around people that sustains the desires and ideas you want them to think they already have. Targeted ads don’t claim our attention to try to get us to make decisions; they purport instead to be mirrors. We can see what we are already presumed to be and take refuge in it.

Ad targeting presumes that one doesn’t change minds by engaging them with arguments; instead one creates an environment that sustains desires you want them to think they already have

Facebook and other similar platforms cater both to the possibility of being controlled while staging a site for ersatz resistance. Interactivity, in this sense, serves as a ritualized form of disavowal by which we convince ourselves we aren’t controlled by the messages we choose to recirculate or not. Interactivity’s modicum of control that can be generalized beyond its actual jurisdiction; it suggests we will still be perceived as in control, even as we enjoy the intimations that we are being controlled, that we are merging into a mass or a mob, that we are starting to belong rather than having to stand alone.

Advertising serves as fulcrum around which we can rebalance our sense of individual agency and social influence as necessary: We can blame ads and algorithms for their manipulation when we want to repudiate our behavior, and we can reject them to prove our own superior rationality to ourselves. Or we can take credit for them, seeing them as ultimately dictated by our previous behavior.

Ad targeting is staked on the idea that users don’t need to be persuaded, only tracked. Ads aren’t meant to change our mind but unobtrusively confirm our sense of who we are. Or to put that another way, targeted ads effectively persuade us that we are immune to persuasion, or even protected from it — that persuasion is beside the point for someone whose identity is already realized. Since the ads are based on data that is already associated with us, it is as if we are pre-persuaded; the ads just reveal the results of the data analysis, which is presumed to uncover what we want without our having to consciously want it or express it. Rather than having to produce a rationale for ourselves, one is presented to us as a fait accompli. This sustains the illusion that we are not influenced by advertising, but rather we influence the advertisers — that our behavior drives what they are obliged to show us.

Most of us are invested in that appearance of our own rationality. We want to seem to decide how we feel rather than be at the mercy of events or affective tides of “emotional contagion” (even when we enjoy and are reassured by being pulled along with them). This fuels what might be regarded as the counterpart of targeted ads: an ostentatious concern with debate as a normative practice. The assumption that everyone should be ready and willing to engage in articulate and rhetorically sophisticated discussions about their reasons for doing and thinking what they do and think manifests itself across culture, especially in the affordances of social media, which presume a kind of public-sphere model of conversation — if not a game-show like contest with a scoreboard — that few interactions actually aspire to.

The trappings of rational debate tend to appear precisely the places where we experience the most anxiety about the possibility of being socially influenced without our conscious assent, where the limits of our agency is most exposed. Hence the charade of televised political debates, and the ongoing pseudo-debates in social media. But for all the framing of online conversation as a series of coherent threads and arguments, little of it proves very debate-like. Instead there is a fetishizing of debates even as they fail to manifest, a sense that if platforms render conversation in a debate-like form, it will reinforce the idea that the individual remains the fundamental unit of persuasion rather than populations or targeted audiences, and that the individual remains equipped to make a conscious choice about when and whether they have been persuaded.

“Debate” gives an alibi of reasoning for what we already believe

This debate fetish works similarly to those ads (for instance, GEICO’s) that ironicize the practice of advertising and foreground their own insipidity, irrationality, nonsensicality, or futility. The intention is to sell you on your own superiority to manipulation, to grant you the feeling of seeing through or looking past the ad, reaffirming your sense of control. This, advertisers hope, neutralizes your defenses and allows the ad to sit comfortably in the background of your consciousness.

The ambiance of debate has a similar effect, encouraging us to assume that the exercise of our individual rationality is the determining factor in what we believe and how we feel, when instead, that apparent foregrounding of rationality depletes it, allowing social influence to become more effectual. “Debate” makes it seem as though there is an appointed time in which we sovereign individuals decide what to think, giving an alibi of reasoning for what we already believe, likely because of what we’ve absorbed through our various affiliations. 

Beyond the effectiveness of any particular ad is the effectiveness of the entire system, which is predicated not on rational consumers but a vision of society in which to belong means seeing oneself and being seen by others as a successful consumer, buying the right sort of goods that send the right message, and effectively becoming a kind of lifestyle product oneself. Likewise with the debate-osphere: Our participation in structured forms of conversation suggest that we are successful “debaters,” imbued with reasons and opinions and investment, even when it is the platforms themselves that supply the stakes and keep the score.

The spectacle of debate, like targeted ads, deflects anxiety about being influenced, but rather than make persuasion entirely beside the point, it renders it the entire point, even for matters that aren’t especially amenable to discussion. In a recent essay, Scott Alexander laid out a Maslow-esque pyramid chart to try to illustrate how much of what passes for debate is, in his view, “meta-debating — debating whether some parties in the debate are violating norms — or … just shaming, trying to push one side of the debate outside the bounds of respectability.” His analysis implies that discussions of disagreements are not efforts to persuade one another of anything. The best case is that participants demonstrate a good-faith intention to disagree on honorable terms.

It may be that we want to think of ourselves as the sort of people who could debate our beliefs at the highest level of the hierarchy of valid reasoning, without having to put in that much effort to substantiate it. The combination of targeted ads and spectacularized debate comforts us from both sides, suggesting that the social structures we navigate posit our individuality without our having to prove it out, and they solicit our participation without it having to mean all that much.


This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of DEBATE FETISH. Also from this week, Linda Besner on argument versus identification