While the pool of Facebook accounts suspected of being harvested by Cambridge Analytica continues to grow it’s important to recognize that there’s more to this story than a cabal of shady republican operators. By focusing on Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL, the major news outlets are creating the perception that what’s happening is the work of a few bad apples. When the reality is that the underlying problem is systemic in nature.
It’s not just the GOP. Political influence operations are a bipartisan affair. According to a number cruncherwho worked for the Democrats, the 2012 Obama campaign aggregated almost five times as much Facebook data as Cambridge Analytica. It’s just that in Obama’s case Facebook execs decided to turn a blind eye. As the source explained, “they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Zuckerberg has hired public relations experts and launched an extensive damage control campaign. Note, for example, the tacit assumption baked into the title of Brian Chen’s piecein the New York Times: “How to Protect Yourself (and Your Friends) on Facebook.” Are editors at the Times alleging that users can have their cake and eat it too?
Reading down into the article, Chen acknowledges that truly protecting your data would entail deleting your Facebook account. This frank admission underscores the fact that it’s nearly impossible for social media users to escape data collection. After all that’s how social media companies make their money. Well over a hundred billion dollars per year. Your online activity inside their walled internet gardens as well as your dopamine addiction to “tweets” and “likes” are their income stream.
What? You thought these online services were free? A miracle of the new economy?
Social media’s big data collection directly informs Madison Avenue. All that aggregation begets carefully targeted attempts at manipulation (though marketing execs prefer harmless euphemisms like “educate” and “inform”). And if that wasn’t bad enough, when intelligence services ask to have a gander its dollars to donuts that social media will silently collaborate, chatting away with spy masters on a first name basis. Keep moving folks, nothing to see here.
So there you have it. Social media is a form of mass surveillance and a tool of elite control. Buy product X, vote for candidate Y, support regime change movement Z. Pay no attention to the CEO behind the curtain.
What to do, what to do?
In the spirit of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), journalists like Matt Taibbi have suggested that government regulation is the way forward. The idea is that lawmakers should enact laws that force social media companies to “dial back the use of the data-collection technologies.” Luminaries like Richard Stallman have echoed similar thoughts. And although there’s merit to the idea, it’s unlikely to be immediately feasible in the United States given the tech industry’s lobbying footprint. Companies like Facebookand Googlehave been more than generous with lawmakers. At best, serious legislative reform is a long term approach that’s linked to state capture. At worst it’s wishful thinking.
Thus we return to Brian Chen’s advice: cold turkey. Take personal responsibility for your own social life. Go back to engaging flesh and blood people without tech companies serving as an intermediary. Eschew the narcissistic impulse to broadcast the excruciating minutiae of your life to the world. Refuse to accept the mandate that you must participate in social media in order to participate in society. Reclaim your autonomy.
Having said that, the option of forgoing digital platforms in favor of genuine human interaction is related to another legitimate critique of social media; that it tends towards ideological echo chambers. Where people take refuge in the comfort of messaging that serves only to reinforce their existing beliefs. A novel incarnation of the divide and conquer strategy which the power elite have traditionally wielded to hobble the proles.
Readers should be wary of social media bubbles, safe spaces, and the like. In the absence of billionaire donors like Robert Mercer and Tom Steyer, instituting societal change means reaching out to other folks. Some of whom may have different ways of viewing the world. Resist the temptation to write them off and have the humility to accept the limits of your own understanding.