The Spinner* (with the asterisk, which I’ll henceforth drop) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner to manipulate another person. It works like this:
- You pay The Spinner $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
- The Spinner provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her,” The Spinner says. Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (both known for clickbait collections you see appended to many publishers’ websites).
The Spinner is also—and far more importantly—a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect journalists’ moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.
See, adtech is also all about manipulating people. It does that by planting tracking beacons in readers’ browsers so those readers’ lives can be examined and influenced by highly targeted advertising.
You’ll find the adtech business and its disturbing purposes unpacked and examined beautifully in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity. But not in the journals that depend on adtech. Nearly all of those find it much easier to attack Google and Facebook for being creepy and manipulative (and to cover story-bait such as The Spinner) than to look at the very same sausage factory behind their own paychecks.
The magician behind The Spinner is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories about both. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes. Pay attention to what journalists covering The Spinner think the story is about:
- For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
- For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
- Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
- Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
- New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
- The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
- Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
- More sex, no smoking — even a pet dog — service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
- The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.
The Spinner is so obviously outrageous, and its provenance so unclear, that one has to ask, at the very least, is it for real?
Elliot Shefler is real for sure, even though his name certainly isn’t. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to a curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile. He is also absent from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and other social media, all of which are standard PR vehicles.
Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ — surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):
this is by far the creepiest and worst pitch i’ve ever gotten. what about the stories i write or who i am as a human being would make u think i wanna write about this??? pic.twitter.com/PKuMctXw5M
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) July 9, 2018
— and this one:
it just keeps going! (i wrote back and told elliot i hope their company fails) pic.twitter.com/bK9xAxRVsY
— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) July 9, 2018
The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.
Here’s some more of what Rich found out:
Elliot — not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) — lives, or told me he lives, in Germany
When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did — keep reading
It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything
He told me that he has 5–6,000 paying users — that’s $145,000 — $174,000, if he’s telling the truth
Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’
He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said — which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang
The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating
Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.
But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of manipulating them. Also that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but that it’s what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.
So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.
The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for decades before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.
Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.
† I’m being honest here, but not brave. I don’t work for a publication paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer Commons‘ P2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.” If you’re a publisher ready to follow our lead, or a journalist ready to grab that third rail, write to me (via my first name at my last name dot com).
Originally published at blogs.harvard.edu on February 27, 2019.