16 Feb 2020

Digital surveillance and propaganda are explored by Dr Ethan Plaut

From Smart Talk, 4:30 pm on 16 February 2020
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Photo: Flickr / Thomas Hawk

Whether you’re handling your digital business or just scrolling for the lulz, every moment you're online could be commodified twice over: while advertisers and propagandists purchase shards of your attention, the surveillance industry simultaneously extracts a constellation of data points about who you are and exactly what you're doing.

Many people believe these processes converge when all that data is used to microtarget and more effectively persuade you. But, Plaut explains in this talk, the truth is much more bizarre.

And how this new technology works echoes traditional examples of propaganda such as Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious anti-Semitic film Triumph of the Will, a manifestation of Nazi ideology.

Some messages are targeted at us to drum up business or anger, belief or doubt. But some messages are generated by one algorithm to trick another algorithm - without regard for the human audiences caught between.

Likewise, your personal data could be used immediately to develop artificial intelligence, or that data could sit idle for years, awaiting unlikely uses of which the governments and corporations that surveil us haven't yet even dreamt.

About the speaker

Dr Ethan Plaut, lecturer in media at University of Auckland.

Dr Ethan Plaut, lecturer in media at University of Auckland. Photo: Supplied

Dr Ethan Plaut is a lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland specialising in computational media, disconnection and communication avoidance, digital journalism and propaganda, and media ethics.

He previously held postdoctoral fellowships in both Computer Science and Rhetoric at Stanford University and is also a former journalist, which included spending three years at an independent newspaper in Cambodia.


Photo: University of Auckland

Raising the Bar was recorded in association with the University of Auckland