The Spinner’s hack on journalism

By telling the story of The Spinner’s outrageous business, journalists miss the story of their own outrageous business model. Exposing that miss is The Spinner’s hack.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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:

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):

— and this one:

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:

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 CommonsP2B1(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.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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