Cambridge Analytica: Another Reason To Leave Social Media Behind

Photo by Michael Pereckas | CC BY 2.0

Everyone is still looking for a way to explain Donald’s Trump’s 2016 Presidential Election victory. This energy could be focused on creating an alternative to Donald Trump. A real populist alternative that puts people before profit. But amongst the circles of the elites and their henchmen within the Democratic Party there is no real populist alternative, except for perhaps the one they have been ignoring, the reasonable reformer Bernie Sanders. Sanders is no revolutionary, he is merely as Noam Chomsky calls him, a breath of fresh air. But even as recently as last week his MLK day speech was written off as some old white guy tearing apart the first black President. If only Bernie was brave enough to do so!

Seeing that the Democrats have no real alternative to Donald Trump, they can only engage negatively and superficially. They have obsessed over why he won, but they give little thought to why he will win again. And at this rate, he will again. The moment they nominate Joe Biden and limit their politics to the pretentious side of a cafeteria food fight, it will be the bully Donald Trump who will triumph as the only consistent character in this theatrical farce that postures as American politics. The Democrats say Trump’s win must be excused, rather than explained. They say it was Russia, it was Assange, it was young people, it was Cambridge Analytica, it was Bernie, it was poor people. Forget the fabrications behind all these excuses. Even if they were true, exposing them does little to address the possibility of a 2020 Trump victory.

The latest scandal, one Cambridge Analytica, seems to have some more legs. They invaded our privacy, they sold our privacy, they manipulated us and they broke laws doing so. Barack Obama and George W. Bush stripped our privacy rights before this all happened, but no one wants to talk about these two “normal” guys anymore.

The right wing media is a force to be reckoned with and they are dangerous, there is no doubt about that. But the complaint about propaganda seems very out of place. For one, all advertisements rely on knowing their audience and all companies collect data on who consumes what. There are tons of beer commercials during baseball games, for example. Also let’s remember that people chose to take these personality tests. No one agreed to give away the data of their Facebook friends, but who is surprised that a company was able to do this? I for one am more concerned that so many people agreed to take these personality tests in the first place.

The internet is fundamentally a place without privacy. One can set their privacy settings or refuse to give away their location. But the reality is that if a company wants this information, they can get it. Let’s say for example, you are considered a “threat” to national security. These rights, or more accurately “preferences” go out the window.

Also, are we supposed to believe that targeted ads were really the most unethical thing to happen in this election? Have we forgot about the DNC rigging the primary for Hillary Clinton? Or the media’s for-profit fondling of Donald Trump? Or the tremendous amount of Super PAC money funneled into the campaigns of Clinton, Jeb Bush and several other Republicans?

There is a concern now that one’s personality can be captured by the internet and sold to companies. Yes, that’s scary. But why then put your personality on the internet? Why spread out your whole life for public display? I am reminded of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they confined sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (35).

This idea can be expanded more broadly (although its focus on sexuality certainly has some specific relevance here too). The modern United States is one of individual expression. There is not a more individualistic and narcissistic society in the world. Self-expression must be poured out endlessly on social media. Declaring one’s identity becomes a rite of passage. The internet is the public forum that is used constantly and recklessly to prove one’s self to the world. It exists as a professional identity as well as a personal one.

America is a place of shame, hatred, cruelty, ignorance, bigotry and violence. The internet is a perfect outlet for these feelings. It is this strange mixture of conservative Puritan shaming and self-righteous liberalism that dominates internet culture. The more one can get away with, the more free one is. We subvert for pain and submit for pleasure. All takes are hot, angry and unoriginal. The language is thoughtless confession disguised as identity and belonging. As the corporate class strips away what Henry A. Giroux calls “public spaces” the internet becomes the most lonely and social place all at once.

All along, this community is being watched. Not just by private companies, but by the government. Americans who fell for Cambridge Analytica’s personality tests surely had their rights violated, but perhaps this should serve as a lesson. Perhaps the lesson is that rather than focus so much on branding, political or otherwise, we should focus on real interaction with the natural world. Who cares what this or that personality test says? Who cares how many likes or friends one has online? Who cares who is the most “woke” or the most confessional? Has this society completely forgotten death? How much time would we really spend online if we treated our fragile, imperfect and miraculous existences as valuable, meaningful and impermanent?

Instead of proving ourselves, let us engage in the vulnerable act of living within the world. Not as representations and algorithms, but as real fucked up human beings who fail, gain weight, get cancer, lose their jobs, hate their lives a lot of days, cry sometimes and feel love, pain, insecurity, despair, loneliness and eventually death. I think this is called “no filter” on social media.

It is astounding how many people confess their lives online to strangers with no thought to what the authorities could do with this information. It is astounding how people are so stuck in their ways they will simply unfriend (virtually and otherwise) someone because of an internet disagreement. It is astounding how often social media turns into angry and mean tirades. It is astounding how much self-image is manipulated and then confessed as authentic. It is also astounding how much we feel burned by this company who actually took advantage of our hyper-competitive narcissistic posturing.

Do you know who wouldn’t have been manipulated by Cambridge Analytica? People who were interested in something other than reinforcing their own opinions and preferences. America is too arrogant to be empathetic and too ignorant to be curious. But blaming the people for this is hardly fair either. Look at what the elites have done to our education system. Social services and social organizations die as we work longer hours for lower wages. Look at the priorities of this culture. It is about selling one’s self. It is about making one’s self useful for the for-profit earth killing capitalist system. It is about standardized tests rather than critical thinking. It is about building people who can make money, not about building people who will become good citizens. When the masses can be manipulated by personality tests, or even more accurately, when the masses can be convinced that personality tests swung the election, we know that the elites have won. They have created a narcissistic, but uniform army of self-righteous, yet submissive warriors for the “resistance” of corporate liberalism on the one hand or corporate conservatism on the other.

It is not very likely that one could be fooled by an online gimmick if one were to simply leave the internet behind. Spending one’s free time in the forest, with friends and family, with a good book, or even better, with an experience completely foreign and frightening, one would find that their mind was at least attempting freedom. For there is something about the internet, as far as it reaches, that diminishes everything to the way it can be expressed on a screen. There is no substitute for real world authenticity and curiosity. Become an original and you may escape the algorithm.

Of course, falling to such generalizations simply sets one at war with the masses and leaves the elites to develop their original ideas of manipulation. It too ignores how working people are often left behind if they can’t connect via the internet. What could be more privileged than leaving this tool of survival behind? Yet we must create social spaces that cannot be watched by the authorities. We must create social spaces that allow for deep bonding with each other and the earth. We must use education as a force that transforms, with empathy as a guiding principle. We must create citizens that recognize that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite the decrepit history of America and the world at large, such a transformation is possible. Along with a measured cynicism must come a willingness to be surprised at all the wonders within each one of us. I am afraid that too much time on the internet leaves one believing that the world is nothing but the selling of one’s body, mind and soul. Too much time on the internet leads one to believe that all of their friends and family have become overzealous zombies. To the contrary, we all flourish, we all dance, and we all resist in the best ways we can, representations be damned.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at