While there appears to be some significant doubt over whether Cambridge Analytica really had much effect on the outcome of 2016 presidential election (Evan Halper at the L.A. Times makes a good case that it didn't), the overall story of the way that millions of Facebook profiles were mined for partisan purposes is still something that is of profound significance in this time when digital technology seems to be on the verge of undermining the entire democratic process itself. As such, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy is a worthy topic for a class that makes use of popular culture in teaching writing and critical thinking.
If you happen to be using the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., you could well begin with John Herrman's "Inside Facebook's (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." In this extensive survey of the many ways in which Facebook has fostered an ecosystem of political activists who invade your news feed with ideologically targeted content, Herrman shows how the marketing of online behavior has been transformed into a "(Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." That our Internet activity is being tracked and our data mined is no secret anymore, and many people don't seem to mind—so long as it only results in specially curated advertising pitches and coupon offers. But what Herrman describes goes well beyond product merchandizing into information manipulation, the building of highly politicized news silos where the news you get is the news that someone has calculated that you want to get, and nothing else, as more and more Americans transition away from such traditional news sources as newspapers and television to Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other social media.
Brooke Gladstone's "Influencing Machines: The Echo Chambers of the Internet" (also in the 9th edition of Signs of Life), succinctly explains the effect of this shift. With no pretense of presenting a balanced palette of news and information, the new media are exacerbating and deepening the social divisions in America, creating ideological echo chambers that effectively constitute alternate realities for those that inhabit them. The result is a kind of political and cultural echolalia.
It's little wonder, then, that the contending parties in America cannot find a way to communicate effectively with each other. Already divided by a history of cultural conflict and contradiction (chapter 7 of Signs of Life explores this division in depth), Americans have vanishingly less in common with those whose lives lie on the other side of the great divide.
There is something profoundly ironic about all this. For many years it has been assumed that the effect of modern mass media has been to chip away at America's regional differences, flattening them out into a kind of unaccented (literally and figuratively) sameness: a mass culture watching the same TV shows, eating the same food, and talking in the same way. But now something is changing. Rather than tending towards a common culture, America, sliced and diced by digital algorithms, is dividing into mutually hostile camps.
William Butler Yeats said it best long ago at a time when his own country was divided in two: "Things fall apart," he lamented, "the centre cannot hold." Now there's something to hashtag.