A Country Divided, Click By Click In light of this past week's revelations about Cambridge Analytica's political use of Facebook data, NPR's Scott Simon reflects on how we let data control our lives.
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A Country Divided, Click By Click

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A Country Divided, Click By Click

A Country Divided, Click By Click

A Country Divided, Click By Click

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When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he famously complained that ad agencies sold political candidates like soap. These days, we might long for the times in which candidates were sold like soap.

Soap ads, after all, use words like "bright," "fresh" and "clean." They try to appeal to as many people as possible, because young and old, north and south, men, women, rich, poor, gay, straight and people of all races and religions use soap.

Political ads were once mocked because they seemed to sloganize airy, imprecise promises. More jobs! Fair taxes! It's morning in America! Build a bridge to the future! Political ads even had jingles.

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A computer screen displays logos associated with the social networking site Facebook on March 22.
AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

But the growing revelations about Facebook and Russian trolling in the 2016 elections has reminded us that political advertising has been succeeded by what is now called "targeted messaging" on social media platforms.

Those messages don't have to urge you to vote for a certain candidate. They can be contrived stories that disparage someone, promote a lie, feed a fear or fuel a prejudice.

It is as if, to use that soap analogy, people on social media pointed at spots on their arms and claimed a certain soap had splotched them. The charges and stories don't have to be true. They just have to make us wonder.

We shouldn't be surprised. What has made social media companies so valuable to investors isn't just that they reach billions of people; radio and television have reached masses of people for decades.

But today's social media reach into us. They know not only our likes and dislikes, but can also infer our moods and fears by what we say, order, joke about, search for, play, like, loathe or long for; all of those clicks are shared, stored, and studied. Social media companies don't make money by keeping our information confidential; they sell it for a price.

That may seem welcome when fans of Usher are led to the music of Trevor Jackson or when those who look up low-fat diets get ads for a cooking oil or anti-cholesterol pills. But when you apply target messaging to politics, it often means campaigns don't even try to appeal to people who hold different opinions, they just confirm and inflame the opinions people already have, often from news sources that only ratify their feelings.

A lot of Americans complain U.S. politics have become dangerously divided. But have we divided ourselves from one another, click by click?