6. P-Hacking Reality in Real-Time

Let’s recap:

  1. We are surreptitiously being nudged in a very large number of directions daily. These nudges not only change the information we receive, but also bleed into the actions we take.

  2. When we are nudged, even the tiniest nudges, given enough exposure to them, can change our identity and our behavior. These decisions quickly become indistinguishable from our own.

  3. Data collection isn’t about surveillance or any single action. The data collection is used to create and track further nudges looking to change our beliefs and actions.

  4. The internet has allowed for mass p-hacking and behavioral experimental campaigns, of which we do not fully understand the outcomes.

In this issue, I will show you real life examples of how p-hacking campaigns changes our notions of knowledge.

Here is one article with a different headline, days apart from nytimes.com:

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Disregarding your political leaning, should periodicals be able to change the titles of their articles whenever they want?

Headlines matter. It has been shown empirically that “misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions.” It changes reasoning and behavior; and as knowledge, it changes further reasoning and behavior as prior knowledge serves a the basis for both.

It’s simple to understand why they would do this. They are doing it for search-engine optimization and increasing views. The headlines are being changed to see which one people would click more. It is a behavioral experiment: given changes in stimulus (headline), which results in more empirical action (clicks)? In short, knowledge and your attention is being hacked for profit. And it is intentional. Here is the same article retrieved in October of the same year. We may rightfully conclude that the headline has been changed at least twice and gaining readership is one of its goals in doing so.

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Here is another from the same time period. While it is not the same article with different headlines, the effect should be clear.

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A mere six days later, same author, same publication:

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Again, disregarding personal political leanings and even disregarding the likelihood of a “moderate Republican” becoming a “fascist” in less than a week, the metrics are clear — a 12x increase in Facebook shares.

P-hacking is a broad term for the pulling of levers and managing variables in experiments to attain a significant effect. In this case, the changing of a person’s perceived political stance (input variable) in under one week has had a tremendous effect on Jamelle Bouie’s readership (output metric). One year later, same author, same publication — a 100x increase in shares than the original “moderate Republican” article:

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Since these articles have been put out, Bouie has been given the title of Chief Political Correspondent at slate.com and is currently a columnist at the New York Times. He has been called “one of the defining commentators on politics and race in the Trump era,” by the Columbia Journalism Review.

One must at this point ask: is the author himself writing the third article because he truly believes in what he says; is he writing it because he realizes he gains more exposure and profit from it; or has he written about the topic with so much fervor and passion that he has come to truly believe it himself? If headlines and information are being subtly manipulated to change and modify your emotions and behavior, what stops people and corporations from changing and manipulating your knowledge, emotions, and behavior for personal gain? If they do so without any concerns for ethics or proper scientific standards, what impact could this have on the population?

No matter what caused his writing to change, the results are clear as Bouie is now a columnist at America’s “newspaper of record.” Expressing these beliefs, regardless of whether he truly believes them, has unquestionably boosted his reputation and career. The only certainty we can point to is that a feedback loop exists. And it is this feedback loop that people are trying to kickstart when they bombard your faculties of attention from every direction via mass-scale p-hacking.

You are now a resource. A statistic whose behavior and attention is being collected, monitored, and manipulated towards someone else’s benefit. This manipulation includes not only small but frequent behavioral changes but also the information and knowledge that you use to mentally build your world.

If the body of information and knowledge we have collected up until this very point in our lives has a tangible affect on how we see the world, then the clicks, the online shares, the arguments we have on information over social media become ingrained as a part of our identity, creating a feedback loop that constantly pressure us to defend our knowledge and our beliefs. The more they become ingrained into our personalities, the harder it is for us to deny them as that would entail denying ourselves and our beliefs. We slowly lose control over what we know about the world, and with it the knowledge of what we can do in the world.

I understand that this may seem outlandish to some people. But I have shown you this feedback loop is real and they are increasingly driven by dumb algorithms that know nothing more than to optimize and maximize specific actions that check for statistical significance. And this capacity is becoming more centralized every day.

The reason I make a plead to agency is that these acts are not done strictly by “one side” or another. My plead is an acknowledgement in many ways we are easily-hacked hunks of gray matter open to suggestion and repetition on all fronts. The need for agency is an opening into being more aware of the choices we make ideologically, emotionally, and practically. Your choices are unawaringly and increasingly nudged by external forces with their own reasons for doing so. Agency, attention, beliefs, and action are tightly intertwined.

In the next article, a guest post by Adam Townsend who lays out what happens when the capacity for large scale p-hacking gets into the hands of the state. Here’s a hint: