The new book from MIT Press, Social Engineering: How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication, by Robert W. Gehl and Sean T. Lawson, takes on an important and ambitious topic. At the risk of oversimplification, Gehl and Lawson set out to answer a question that’s been perplexing thinking, observant Americans for the last six years: What on earth is going on with public opinion and the news—and politics?
While not everyone would agree with their perspective, Gehl and Lawson reasonably argue that the country has gone more or less crazy, with tens of millions of people passionately believing in demonstrable falsehoods. As they say in the book, “The United States is awash in a disorienting and sometimes deadly media environment.” People share, and believe, manipulative information about elections and bogus COVID cures on social media.
It’s a good question, and Social Engineering offers an approach to answering it. Gehl and Lawson, who are professors at Louisiana Tech and University of Utah, respectively, break the problem down and offer an analysis of how mass communications have changed over the least few years. Their high-level takeaway is that the dividing line between mass communications, as exemplified by radio and TV, and interpersonal communications like email and chat, has blurred. We are now in an era of what they call “masspersonal” communications.
Masspersonal communications is the practice of sharing a personalized message with a mass audience.
Masspersonal communications is the practice of sharing a personalized message with a mass audience. They cite examples of Facebook memes that are exquisitely tuned to each social media user’s personal psychographic profile. The election manipulation by Cambridge Analytica is a case in point. After extensive data mining on American voters, the firm and its affiliates were able to target millions of people with personalized messages that motivated them to support Donald Trump for president.
As they point out, the general strategy here is not at all new. It is social engineering, the archetypal approach to public relations set out by industry pioneers like Edward Bernays and Doris Fleischman in the 1920s. These original social engineers believed the public relations professions had a right, if not a duty, to mold public opinion with the goal of reengineering society into a better version of itself. In this endeavor, they likened themselves to other heroic engineers of the era, who solved problems of public health and human existence through innovative engineering solutions.
As we all know, however, not all PR professionals have been so noble in the intervening century. The Bernays/ Fleischman techniques have been exploited to obscure the danger of cigarettes, nuclear power and other societal ills.
What’s different now is that technology has made it possible to take the Bernays/ Fleischman strategy of mass persuasion and combine it with data analytics to deliver social engineering at a personalized level. Mass plus personal. Masspersonal.
Today’s social engineers have borrowed sly tactics from hackers, the other group whose members call themselves social engineers.
In this, the authors argue, today’s social engineers have borrowed sly tactics from hackers, the other group whose members call themselves social engineers. The book quotes the notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick extensively. In Mitnick’s view, as the authors relate, it is usually far easier to hack a person than it is to hack a computer system. The social engineers, starting with the original “phone phreaks” of the 1970s, are adept at tricking people into sharing passwords and granting access to restricted networks. The masspersonal social engineers also use these techniques to manipulate large groups of people, not just one victim at a time.
Gehl and Lawson have definitely done their homework here. They offer extensive analysis and examples of the connections between hacking, Mitnick style social engineering and their paradigm of masspersonal social engineering. Much of this is outside of my academic and intellectual weight class, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable assessing the validity of their arguments. I will offer a few observations, however.
At a base level, this book provides an insightful and accurate take on a communications revolution that is reshaping politics and society in general. The revolution is new and still unfolding, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s happening—except, what’s happening now is different from what happened before. If nothing else, the book is a wakeup call for people who are struggling to understand the forces shaping public opinion in baffling ways.
The book also answers an implicit question asked by societal and political observers, which is why the old techniques of rebutting opposing points of view in the media no longer work.
The book also answers an implicit question asked by societal and political observers, which is why the old techniques of rebutting opposing points of view in the media no longer work. Why is that when Donald Trump sent out a tweet, tens of millions of people aligned with his point of view, while no amount of guest appearances on Sunday talk shows or New York Times op-eds could do anything to budge his base? The book gives an answer. Masspersonal communications is more powerful and reaches deeper into the public consciousness than traditional mass media.
One area where I think the authors have missed the point, however, is in their eulogies for the Bernays/ Fleischman model of mass communications and social engineering. They say it no longer exists. This may be true in the sense that pompous elitists don’t strut around bragging that they are in control of public opinion. That’s passé. However, their techniques are very much with us.
It’s important not to ignore the raw power of television and radio today in shaping opinions and driving political action. A brief glance at Fox News and its ability to persuade millions of people to think a certain way should blunt any claim that traditional social engineering is dead. Its practitioners are simply lurking in the shadows, rather than claiming a divine right to reshape American society.
Overall, this is an important book, one that contributes much-needed insights into a confusing and alarming time.
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