Harry R. Lloyd investigates the disturbing website that offers services in targeted mind control for your money
Have you ever tried to brainwash your friends into sharing your favourite hobbies, giving up their annoying habits, or learning to love yours? If old school techniques of persuasion have failed you, then maybe you should try TheSpinner.Net. This website uses online advertising to mould the minds of its customers’ loved ones.
Here’s how The Spinner is supposed to work. First of all, customers choose a campaign from the site’s homepage, themed around what they want their friend or loved one to do. Popular options include “Propose Marriage!”, “Initiate Sex!”, “Quit Your Job!” (designed to target your annoying colleagues) and “Quit Smoking”. Most campaigns cost US$49 (£38), although some high-demand campaigns (like “Breast Augmentation!” and “Polyamory Love!”) cost US$79 (£61) a throw.
After a customer purchases a campaign, their “target” (that’s The Spinner’s word choice, not mine) will be sent a hyperlink via text. When the target opens the link, a cookie will be stored on their device. When they browse online over the next three months, much of the advertising space will feature links to ten specially chosen articles. These articles are designed to persuade the target to do what the customer wants. For example, targets of the “Initiate Sex!” package will see links to (real) articles from Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health about the joys of taking initiative in the bedroom.
Some of The Spinner’s campaigns are more wholesome than “Breast Augmentation!” and “Initiate Sex!”: for example: “Accept My Sexual Orientation!”, “Drive Carefully!”, and “Stay in College!”. The campaign designed to persuade an estranged spouse to settle a divorce out of court is also popular.
It began life as a frequently-requested “tailor-made” campaign: if you can imagine a campaign, then The Spinner can design it (for a price, of course).
European Idler readers who find this idea extremely creepy will be pleased to learn that – because of recent European Parliament legislation – despite being run in Britain The Spinner isn’t available in the UK or EU, hence it charging for its services in US dollars. Still, what will happen to that legislation after Brexit is anyone’s guess. And a tech-savvy friend of mine has advised me that a customer could probably find ways to circumvent The Spinner’s ban on UK and EU campaigns if they tried hard enough.
The prospect of being targeted by The Spinner is frightening. But executives at the company protest that Spinner campaigns are not all that different from run-of-mill targeted advertising. If you’ve ever shopped on Amazon, then chances are you’ll have been haunted online afterwards by a book that you looked at for a while, but didn’t buy. In fact, advertising ideas much darker than Spinner campaigns could in principle be out there already. A payday loan company could decide to target people who read financial advice websites; divorce lawyers could decide to target people who search online for marriage counsellors.
When I first read about The Spinner, it sounded to me like a fiction, of the sort that philosophers would dream up to explore our intuitions about targeted advertising. The fact that The Spinner actually exists is a reminder of how far through the looking glass we have already come.
The Chinese Communist Party’s use of online subliminal messaging has been much decried in the West. But in Europe and America, the same tools are being put to use by private firms. Freethinkers: beware.