John Oliver decided to f*** around and find out last week. What he found out was how many Capitol Hill lawmakers would click on ads that pushed divorce, voting twice, and Ted Cruz erotic fan fiction. You may be thinking, “Surely no person in their 50s or older would click on such targeted links.” If you are thinking that, you’ve never had to explain to your mother how Facetiming works. I envy you. In fact, Oliver and his crew acquired plenty of clicks, and they were able to mine lawmaker data as a result.
This all started with a hefty deep dive by Oliver (as is tradition) on Last Week Tonight about the world of Data Brokers. There are companies whose sole purpose is to acquire data on internet users and then farm that data out to third parties. You could be purchasing baby booties one day, and then be spammed with ads for more baby products for the weeks following. For instance, for my twins’ first birthday, I bought them adorable monster booties. That was a month ago. Since then, I have received targeted ads on almost any site I visit for the same booties (albeit sometimes with slight variations).
There are more insidious uses of data mining. Oliver presents examples of domestic abuse survivors being possibly tracked by their abusers. He also cites a prayer app used by Muslims that was selling their location. It is incredibly upsetting and unnerving. It’s also something that we just have to live with at the moment. The reason why is that lawmakers, who could shut the practice down, benefit from it too greatly.
In response to that, Oliver’s team set up the targeted ads I mentioned earlier and used them to collect data. Not only was it successful, they even managed to get a few people to click the links while in the Capitol building! What Oliver does with the data next is still a mystery, but don’t be surprised if you see some new legislation drawn up first.
Header Image Source: HBO Max