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Fake David Koch, #PDF12 and the New Gullibility

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 14 2012

Latter-day Jerky Boy and alt-weekly writer Ian Murphy came to Personal Democracy Forum 2012 to talk about the Wisconsin recall election. Apparently he wasn't done by the end of the panel we'd asked him to join.

Murphy's contribution to the Wisconsin labor fight was to pose as David Koch through an improbably long phone conversation with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during the legislative battle over collective bargaining rights, then post the audio file online. It demonstrated a few interesting things: The credulity of some people in politics and their eagerness to please monied interests; that Republican operatives aren't the only ones who love a good political prank, especially one that hinges on false identity; and what Walker was thinking at a time when he wasn't speaking to the press or to his Democratic opposition.

Murphy's contribution to PDF was to unpack what happened in Wisconsin, as it relates to the Internet, along with a bipartisan gaggle of activists and operatives at work in the state during the recall vote. The panel included Republican Governors Association digital director Matthew Gagnon and Gagnon's defeated foe, Ryan Alexander, who ran digital for fallen Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett. Murphy pans both of them in his post.

The Buffalo-based writer's add-on to the post-PDF conversation is a saucy blind item or two — which "Democratic apparatchik" was peeking "artlessly" at a female speaker's chest during a pre-conference cocktail? — and a poke at what he called the "'internet is good, and aren't we all so important'" feel that crept into the conference at times. Eventually, this evolves into a cogent critique of the Internet's role in a healthy democracy as it was presented at the conference:

The presumption is that any and all compelling message can and will spread across the internet. The naive aspect of that presumption is that what’s “compelling” is based in reality. It’s “compelling” that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It’s “compelling” that unions are the ruination of the American economy. It’s “compelling” that Tom Barrett wants to confiscate your guns and use them to murder toddlers. Social media is a tool like any other. And until it can teach us all not to be such incredible idiots, if that’s even possible, the traditional manipulation industry — your junk food marketers, your AFPs, your Heritage Foundations, your RGAs and their evil, little Matthew Gagnons, etc. — just has one more tool to manipulate people.

As opposed to print, radio, and TeeVee, the internet isn’t a solely passive medium. People are actively engaged. The dream is that enough people can engage and win against a heavily funded manipulator on the internet. But people are huge fucking idiots. So we’ll just have to see about that.

Sure, there are new means of manipulation (practitioners, of course, call it something else) rising online as the relevance of broadcast media slowly wanes. And Murphy, at our conference in the first place thanks to a stunt he pulled that revolved around flat-out deceit, knows a thing or two about the malleability of the human brain.

When it comes to new forms of data-driven persuasion, the reigning response is emotional. People do, after all, tend to fear what they don't understand.

But the best way to understand how something works is to take it apart and build it again, and the Internet gives plenty of opportunities for that. Here is where the punk rock caucus of the PDF tribe, represented in 2012 by Mozilla executive director Mark Surman, comes in. Surman — in another era, as a punk rocker in his youth — remixed whatever media he could find to put together flyers for his band. But découpage as a study in media criticism wasn't the point of his talk; his point was that the web has components that can be cut up and pasted together the way you might paste together a flyer. I'd add that Internet applications can be tweaked the way you might modify a car.

In a world where kids in their early teens peek under the hood of websites to learn about — and maybe even use — more complicated aspects of the Internet, phenomena like the growing use of behavioral tracking online might be met with able criticism rather than fear and misunderstanding. Kids who have made use of an Amazon Web Services instance or actually written a tracking cookie would be better equipped to navigate the traps of an Internet where campaigns use information volunteered on one part of the web — or even offline — to decide how to try to persuade them on another.

Surman likened teaching kids about the web's inner workings to the kind of training they might get in the outdoors as a Boy Scout. He thinks it's a good idea because it would create warm fuzzy feelings for the free and open Internet that fits so nicely with the remix culture he likens to his punk-rock roots. But his metaphor might be apt in another way. It might be right to say that teaching kids about the Internet's inner workings necessarily involves teaching about the digital equivalent of poison ivy and raccoons getting into the cooler. On the Internet, that means being less generous with personal information, more skeptical of purported "facts," and even more cautious about believing professed identity.

This is exactly what Murphy says he wishes people would do. This is about using the Internet to make people less stupid.

Put another way, it's about about raising a generation less likely to believe some guy on the phone who says he's a billionaire industrialist when he's really a crank from upstate New York.

The bright shiny future that might still happen is one where Murphy's next prank call doesn't go quite as well — and I don't think he'd mind.