Facebook - is it the ultimate enemy of Democracy?
27 March 2018
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica (C.A) revelations, Facebook has been on the end of some withering criticism about the way it uses its data, including multiple articles from The Guardian and Observer encouraging people to delete their Facebook app, UK lawmakers asking Zuckerberg to explain what has happened, the #deletefacebook campaign started by the co-founder of Whats App and multiple lawsuits.
So should we all be deleting Facebook? Anyone in our industry knows that to Facebook has tightened up the data you can get significantly and that it is anonymized as standard practice to protect us all - although this is not being relayed in the media at all. This particular situation revolves around anonymized data that Facebook gave to a University team for a legitimate study, one of the team members then took the data and used it for a contract with C.A, and also used Amazon's "MTurk", to obtain further data on other Facebook uses and all their friends (without authorisation), by filling out a quiz, with each user paid around a dollar for the data (see image below).
When Facebook found out that the data it gave the University had found its way to C.A, it asked for it to be destroyed and was told - in a signed letter by C.A - that it was, it also stopped the use of the App that mined "friends of friends" info. To me, thats Facebook acting properly, although sloppily and highlighting the problem of data - once its out there, its out there..
The issue however isn’t so much that Facebook shared this anonymized data, it is more what was supposedly done with it by C.A. Its about C.As CEO who sounds like a sociopath as he claims he used the Facebook data to create false ads and fake news for Political campaigns - including Trumps - to sway the public's minds during votes – truly horrific stuff. But this is not a Facebook issue, it is an industry and a legislation issue, its us catching-up with the speed and capabilities of info tech and data.
The Guardian and Observer need to be given congratulations for highlighting the data issue back in 2015 , but the focus of recent articles is awful. Lots of the Guardian and Observer articles reference a quote from Mark Zuckerberg when he was at university saying that people were "dumb F**cks" for giving away their data, drawing the inference that he thinks we are stupid and is to blame for the C.A incident. Go back into anyone's time at University and you could find quotes to build a case against them, but that would be one sided and uninformative, and that’s what a lot of these articles are.
The article doesn’t mention that very other App, every other online business, media channel, news network, including The Guardian, use data harvesting in some form to target customers, and that in the wrong hands, it is very dangerous.
Handled correctly, this could be the start of the public beginning to understand how data actually works and help us improve protecting data and data use - which is a very good thing – but fully blaming Facebook for the C.A issue isnt very helpful.
Why this has got everyone so upset is because Cambridge Analytica suggest they have affected our demographic process and have no qualms about engaging in nefarious practices to spread disinformation and even encourage “honey traps” and bribing officials. Should the data have been used to create fake, targeted content, no, is data used by our entire marketing and business system, yes. So lets change the game, not act like the worst of the worst tabloids and spread one-sided disinformation.
It is well worth listening to Christopher Wylie - the data science expert and whistleblower who worked on the Trump campaign and exposed what C.A were doing. He explains how his boss at C.A wooed Steve Bannon - Trump's campaign leader and Mr Breitbart – by creating “fake offices” in Cambridge to impress him with their “intellectual credentials”, and how Bannon believed that if you wanted to change politics you needed to change culture and “break society”. He says they created micro-targeting and psychological profiles of each voter, harvested circa 50 million profiles from Facebook and from this knew what kind of messages would appeal, the framing to use, topics, content, tone, where you are going to consume and how many times it needed to “touch you” to have your mind changed.
Sound a bit like a brand marketing strategy - well it is - minus the lies and sociopathy.
Chris outlines the danger of this approach beautifully.
“C.A whispered different things into the ear of each voter…If we don’t have a shared understanding then how can we be a functioning society. (Steve) Bannon believed to change society you first have to break it, and its only when it is broken that you can remould society into your version of what society should be, it was the weapon Steve Bannon used to fight his culture war”.
"Breaking" society by spreading lies and encouraging division through data so you can recreate your own version of the world, God that makes me feel sick, what a totally psycho thing to say...
So yes, the laws need to be tightened, yes we need to understand how to protect and work with data, yes Facebook could have done more - but this is not a Facebook thing. If it is how Chris Wylie describes it, then its an unscrupulous CEO issue, its about someone who didn’t care what lies he told and how he affected the Democratic process – so long as he got rich, and a zealot who believed that the means justified the ends no matter how much pain the “means” caused for the world. The Channel 4 hidden camera video reveals this in all its awful ugliness, I urge you to watch it.
It’s at moments like this that I am thankful for people like Eric Schmidt at Google, whose motto is “do no evil”, or even the maturing Zuckerberg.
I am thankful that it is Eric and Zuck and Elon running these companies, if these people wanted to “break” our society, like Bannon supposedly wanted to, they could, but they don’t because they are not sociopaths, and thank God for that.