We’re All Guinea Pigs: The Hidden Experiments of Corporate Websites

What Makes You Click

VPRO (2016)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the vast amount of A/B design testing* that websites subject us to without our knowledge.

The psychological science behind “conversion optimization” (ie increasing the money we spend online) is becoming increasingly advanced. As “online persuaders” explain to filmmakers, most of us are totally unaware of specific design features that lead us to stay longer and spend more money on specific websites.

For example, most of us find pop-ads extremely irritating. Nevertheless studies show they consistently increase on-line sales by 10-15%.

Facebook constantly reconfigures the design of their newsfeed to increase dopamine surges (dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with stimulant addiction) in the brains of their users. Theoretically the pleasurable feelings this produces helps keep visitors on their site longer.  In fact, one psychologist compares the effect Facebook and Twitter invoke to the feeling gambling addicts describe of “being in the zone .”

The film, produced before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica** scandal erupted in early 2018, also discusses the on-line behavioral research the Obama campaign used in 2012 to influence voter behavior.

Several researchers seriously question the ethics of using hidden techniques to persuade Internet users to act against their own best interests. Some have joined together in the Time Well Spent movement to press for stronger government regulation. They worry that wide uptake of artificial intelligence technology could make it virtually impossible to audit persuasion strategems that operate below the level of human consciousness.


*A/B testing relies on randomized experiments with two variants, A and B. It serves to test a subject’s response to variant A against variant B to determine which of the two variants is more effective.

**In early 2018, we learned that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without users’ consent and used it to target them for 2016 election advertising.

Black Lives: Addiction – Insiders Speak Out About the Murky Drug Trading World in the US

Black Lives: Addiction – Insiders Speak Out About the Murky Drug Trading World in the US

RT (2019)

Film Review

This episode consists of interviews with an ex-cop, a former gang leader and various drug dealers and ex-drug dealers. It also features a debate between a Black pastor and a drug dealer whether whether the latter can earn as much money doing a “legal” hustle. The dealer, who deals drugs mainly to pay child support, highlights his genuine lack of legal options. As Michelle Alexander documents so vividly in The New Jim Crow, his criminal record disqualifies him for student aid, public housing and most employment.

In my view, the main weakness of this episode is its failure to examine the CIA role in international drug trafficking or their role (first exposed by late investigative journalist Gary Webb and subsequently admitted by the CIA Inspector General) in supplying crack cocaine to California gangs. See

CIA’s Drug Trade Essential to Geopolitics

The CIA and the Drug Trade

CIA Drug Trafficking on Prime Time TV

 

Charlottesville: Frontline/ProPublica Investigation Leads to Arrests

This documentary concerns an investigation by a Frontline/ProPublica reporter into the Nazi and White Supremacist groups responsible for the Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville Virginia in 2017. There has been wide concern across the political spectrum that Charlottesville police stood by as hundreds of white supremacists punched, beat and kicked counter demonstrators – also that the police allowed perpetrators to walk away.

In all, Charlottesville police only made ten arrests.

Most of the footage concerns the Frontline/ProPublica investigation into individual white supremacists leaders who instigated the assault. Robert Rundo, whose image was captured in much of the Charlottesville video coverage, turns out to be a former gang member from Queens. Following a two year stint in prison for a gang assault, he moved to Orange County California, where he started the Rise Above Movement. The latter conducts regular training in street fighting to prepare for attacks on minorities and antifascists.

A second individual involved in the Charlottesville riot was found to hold a federal security clearance to work at Northup Grumman in Orange County.

A third was discovered to be on active duty in the Marines. The Front Line/ProPublica investigation uncovered evidence that Private First Class Pistoles has been active in the Nazi group Atomswaffen for years. The US military allegedly has a ban on membership in racist organizations.

The Marines initially took no action against Pistoles, even after Congressman Keith Ellison shared ProPublica’s evidence with Secretary of Defense James Mathis.

Once investigative journalist A.C. Thompson published his investigation online, nine additional perpetrators were indicted for hate crimes in Charlottesville and Orange County. Pistoles was court-martialed and dismissed from the Marines.

How the British Monarchy Subverts Democracy

The Power Behind the Throne

Press TV (2015)

Film Review

This 2015 Press TV documentary questions whether the power accorded the British monarchy is consistent with democracy. It argues the extreme wealth* of the current royal family (and their clear efforts to protect that wealth) translates into significant state power, especially as the UK has no written constitution to limit their power and privileges.

It goes on to detail a number of royal privileges and activities that directly clash with the democratic rights of British citizens.

It starts with the economic privileges Prince Charles enjoys as the personal owner of the Duchy of Cornwall:**

  • Charles is the automatic heir of anyone who dies in Cornwall without a will. Thus far, he has inherited £3.3 million in this way, which he uses to fund personal projects, including a fund to pay private school bursaries. He rejects local requests to keep these funds within Cornwall.
  • He’s exempt from usual requirements to obtain planning permission and use consents for any land development he engages in Cornwall.
  • He’s exempt from business and capital gains tax on any income his Cornwall businesses generate.

The Prince of Wales is also notorious for the letters he writes to government ministers lobbying them about specific projects and issues. In 2005, the Guardian files a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain 27 such letters he wrote between 2004-2005. Both the Blair and the Cameron government fought the release of these letters for ten years, at a total cost of £400,000. In 2015, the British supreme court ordered them release.

The filmmakers also detail the role Princes Charles and Andrew play in lobbying Saudi Arabia and other third world dictatorships to purchase British weapons systems and fighter jets. This role directly benefits royal family members as weapons industry shareholders.


*Altogether the royal family privately owns a £70 billion real estate and share portfolio, in addition to a £10 billion art collection. They also receive a £40-200 million taxpayer funded stipend for the official duties they perform.

**The Duchy of Cornwall is one of two royal duchies, the other being the Duchy of Lancaster. The eldest son of the reigning British monarch inherits the duchy and the title of Duke of Cornwall at birth or when their parent assumes the throne

 

Omnipotent: Amazon, Jeff Bezos and Collecting Data

Omnipotent: Amazon, Jeff Bezos and Collecting Data

DW (2019)

Film Review

Amazon, which presently controls 50% of the US retail marketplace, relies heavily on data collection to flog its products, as Facebook and Google do. In addition to books and consumer products, Amazon also sells insurance, medication, films, TV programs and facial recognition software. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns Whole Foods and the Washington Post.

In addition to aggressively buying out competitors to maintain his retail monopoly, he also uses the massive amount of personal data he collects to suggest products for his customers to buy. .

In 2018, Bezos used his monopoly status to force the Seattle City Council to repeal a 0.7 payroll tax to provide housing for the city’s growing homeless population. Amazon, which pays virtually no taxes, provides 45,000 jobs in Seattle. About a third receive such low pay they qualify for food stamps.

Across the US and throughout Europe, the growing Amazon monopoly has led to the closure of hundreds of thousands of brick and mortar retail stores and the virtual death of numerous city centers.

As a matter of policy, Amazon declined to be interviewed for this documentary. So the filmmakers interviewed Alexa instead.


*Alexa is Amazon’s cloud-based voice activated Internet search service.

 

 

Diana: The Night She Died

Diana: The Night She Died

Timeline (2018)

Film Review

Originally released in 2006, this documentary was part of a pressure campaign led by The Tatler to force British authorities to convene an inquest into the August 31, 1997 death of Princess Diana. In the UK, the Coroner’s Act requires an inquest for all deceased British nationals returned home for burial. Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed died in a car accident in Paris.

The campaign to compel an inquest was largely triggered by a 1995 letter Diana’s former lover released in 2003 revealing that closely predicted the circumstances.

In preparing to make this film, filmmakers reviewed the 27 volumes of confidential evidence collected by the French investigating magistrate. They focus on 10 specific anomalies in the French verdict blaming driver Henri Paul (who also died in the crash) for the accident because he was drunk.

  • The tunnel where the accident occurred was scrubbed clean and reopened within four hours of the crash. This destroyed critical forensic evidence.
  • The 27 volumes omit the statement provided by the first witness on the scene – he reports being threatened and silenced by the police because his evidence contradicts the official police report.
  • The 27 volumes omit the accident report by French traffic police.
  • The 27 volumes  omit any evidence of Henri Paul’s role as a longstanding MI6 (British intelligence) agent.
  • The 27 volumes omit any reference to the Mercedes collision (reported by several witnesses) with a white Fiat Uno that appears to have sent it skidding into the tunnel wall. The driver of the Fiat Uno died under suspicious circumstances in June 2000 (he allegedly set fire to himself and the Fiat Uno).
  • The 27 volumes omit any reference to the disappearance of Dodi’s cellphone, which, according to video evidence, he was holding just before he got into the Mercedes.
  • The French police declared Henri Paul’s drunkenness the primary cause of the crash well before his blood results were available and despite video evidence showing no evidence of intoxication.
  • In addition to revealing a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, Henri Paul’s blood tests revealed a carbon monoxide level of 20.7%. The autopsy pathologists who conducted the autopsy make no effort to explain this odd finding. French authorities denied British pathologists access to Paul’s body and his blood samples.
  • Contrary to standard protocol, there was no backup protection vehicle behind the car the princes was driving in.
  • The Mercedes was stolen and had all its electronics ripped out three months prior the accident. Following the crash, French police denied the manufacturer access to the car to ensure it was repaired correctly.

Under massive public pressure, the British coroner finally convened an inquest in 2008. Although the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict (the judge allowed a majority verdict), they officially confirmed the official French verdict. A careful review of the inquest transcripts reveals much of the above evidence was concealed from them. See Princess Diana British Coverup and Wikispooks: John Morgan

Rebel Geeks – Give Us Back Our Data

Rebel Geeks – Give Us Back Our Data

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

This documentary (released in 2015) gives a surprisingly prescient warning about allowing the apps and Internet services we use to collect and sell our data. It would be another year before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke – and we learned Facebook had sold them our data for use in the 2016 elections.

The filmmakers also warn us about Fitbit and similar health tracker apps that sell our data to insurance companies and drug companies. They predict a time when insurance companies will refuse to insure us if we refuse to to use tracking devices to monitor of our lifestyle habits and driving.

There are also segments about law enforcement’s growing misuse of facial recognition technology and Uber’s use of data algorithms to ruthlessly exploit drivers (and make billions in profits). In 2013, drivers filed suit against the company for classifying them as contractors rather than employees. Uber did this deliberately to deprive them of minimum wage guarantees, union representation and unemployment and workers compensation benefits (for on-the-job injuries).

Uber settled the lawsuit in March for $20 million. See Uber Drivers Lawsuit Settlement