Monday, July 2, 2012

Cookie Monster Stalkers

We're all accustomed to politicians throwing out pitiful crumbs to the common folk, while they allow the highest corporate bidders to feast and gorge at public expense. And now it turns out they're tossing us fancy cookies, too. It's bad enough that they're constantly projectile-vomiting emails into our overflowing spam buckets. But internet cookies? Say it ain't so!  Barry and Mitt are cyberstalkers!

Um-Num-Num-Num-Num.... Don't Block Me, Bro!

Well, it is so. In case you were wondering how it is, no matter what web page you visit, that the same feel-good cheesy photos keep popping up urging you to "Help the Obamas Stand Up for Working Families" and "Tell Michelle You're IN" or "Grab a Bite with Ann", it's all the fault of cookies. If you have ever clicked on a link to their campaign websites or ads, a little gizmo is activated that will not only follow you wherever you go, but will gather information about you based on where you troll on the Internet. We knew it was happening with the Obama machine months ago, when ProPublica figured out that his campaign nerds customize their money-grubbing email appeals based solely on your browsing history.  

Romney is now playing catch-up. ProPublica reporter Lois Beckett was decidedly creeped out when Mitt started stalking her across cyberspace recently. As a reporter, she spends a "fair amount of time" on his campaign website and as a result, she became fodder for a slew of ads urging her to "learn more" and donate, donate, donate.

 This is the same kind of online targeting  used by sites that sell airline tickets or shoes. If you visit Zappos, advertisements for the sneakers you looked at will sometimes follow you around the web. Romney's campaign was sending me a "donate" button instead.
But the fact that I was being targeted based on my visits to the campaign site wasn't at all clear from the ads themselves.
Each of the ads had a teensy blue triangle in the top right corner. Because I report on online advertising, I know that the triangle means I've been targeted. Many online ad companies have agreed to give consumers a heads-up that they're seeing a message that's been personalized to them. They mark targeted ads with a blue triangle icon or the words "Ad Choices."
When I clicked on the blue triangle on one of the Romney ads, a message popped up saying that a company called ShareThis had "determined that you might be interested in an ad like this." The ad had been "selected for you based on your browsing activity."
If you're interested in more of the technical details of how ShareThis does what it does, do read the whole article. ProPublica also wants to hear from you about your own experiences with political cyberstalkers and asks that you send a screenshot of the ads targeting you to:

But if you'd rather not be part of a survey, or if the idea of being stalked by Barry and Mitt makes you queasy, take out a restraining order. No, you don't have to sue or go to the People's Court. You can make all the ads go away, forever and completely, just by downloading an ad-blocking program. I installed AdBlock (the simple version) a few weeks ago and it made every single ad disappear immediately. No more opening an ad strategically placed to be accidentally clicked while I scroll down a page. No more ads that have to be "rolled" off the page before I can read an article. It has been rated completely safe and effective, and I can attest to its sanity-preserving virtues. There are different versions adapted to different browsers, so just Google to find the right one for you.

Of course, advertisers hate it because they're still paying for ads people are not seeing. And some people are ticked because most versions of AdBlock can't always distinguish between good ads and bad ads, annoying ads and helpful ads. It's all or nothing. You can't decide you want to see the Obama ads and block the Mittster. You have no choice between Greater Evil and Lesser Evil. You can't block Walmart ads and allow Bergdorf Goodman ads. Oh, the humanity.

While AdBlock and similar programs prevent the annoying messages from reaching your screen, they do not block tracking cookies. To foil the internet spies, clear out your browser on a regular basis. (I clean mine once or twice a day. This measure has the added perk of allowing you to access sites with paywalls by erasing your "footprint history.")

As far as the annoying emails are concerned, "unsubscribing" may or may not work. You may simply find yourself engaging in a futile game of whack-a-mole. As an experiment to determine the exponential grasp of political email lists, I signed a "thank you" card to President Obama on his gay marriage evolution, sent to me by Nancy Pelosi. Sure nuff, the fund-raising emails came barfing out almost instantaneously. They came from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DNC, congress critters from thousands of miles away that I never even heard of. To make it all stop, I had to unsubscribe from each person individually -- a fraught and time-consuming process. This barely put a dent in the torrent. But I think it's finally starting to dwindle down.

I tried the same experiment with the right-wingers, having signed up for alerts from the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity (a/k/a Rich People for Rich People.) The nefarious koch-heads promptly gave my email address to every right wing nut job in Nutland. Herman Cain writes often, including all those videos of stuffed animal abuse. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer offered to send me an autographed copy of her book "Scorpions for Breakfast" if I sent her 50 bucks first. (I passed). Now, of course, they're going crazy with the Down with Obamacare missives that are truly hilarious in their insistence that government medical care will kill us all. No way am I unsubscribing from that crap. It is way too entertaining.

Update: This just in from Herman Cain. It's a teaser about "Cain TV", supposedly coming soon to a cable channel near you. I can guarantee it will also play in an endless loop on MSNBC, the liberal outrage channel. From the preview, it appears to be a hodge-podge of paranoid apocalyptica coupled with slapstick comedy with a racist-misogynist slant (there's a segment with a black comedian doing a minstrel routine--hard to figure out if it's satire, or the blatant hurling of red meat to bigots and militia groups. For now, I'll choose the latter.)  At the end, Herman himself appears, telling us: "Hello. I'm Herman Cain. They think we're stupid."  And he concludes with "Let's give a lamb a gun. I am Herman Cain. We are not stupid."

This has all the makings of a summer hit.

1 comment:

Annie Wilkes said...

Nothin' like a couple of dirty birdies shootin' the f'in shit with some chocolate-chip cookies! Great article, K! The Photoshop ain't too shabby, neither!

P.S: I'm your number one fan. ;)