Cambridge Analytica, a firm whose social media strategies helped Donald Trump to win the Presidential Election, is under fire for overstepping the mark and harvesting information from 50 million Facebook profiles without the users’ knowledge or consent. The episode has sparked a debate about the power that big tech companies hold in the modern world. The biggest surprise, though, is why we should find this surprising at all.
In the information age, knowledge really is power, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have an unprecedented wealth of that at their disposal. It’s this extensive information that Cambridge Analytica, a ‘Full-service propaganda machine’, is accused of tapping into, illegally harvesting data from the profiles of tens of millions of users. Around 265,000 people downloaded an app for a personality quiz, in the process allowing it to access further information about their friends.
Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who worked for the firm, told the Observer how this was used. ‘We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.’
Whilst Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, has claimed, ‘We have never worked with a Russian organisation in Russia or any other company... We do not have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals’, the links are certainly there and are part of a broader picture of the ‘weaponisation of information’ for which Russia has become famous. A step back, though, shows that Russia is not the only one at it. They just happen to be the best.
Once upon a time, back when the internet was still young and at least moderately innocent, social media was about relationship. It allowed friends to keep up to date with each other, old friends to get back in touch, even families spread across different continents to stay connected. Ten years later, it’s the tool by which a group of state-sponsored Russian actors delivered the propaganda that swung the 2016 US Presidential Election. How did we get from A to B?
It won’t come as much surprise to learn that money is involved. Facebook – all social media companies, but especially Facebook – came under pressure to monetise its platform after its hugely successful IPO. Advertising is how they do it, and that means keeping people on the site for as long as possible. The ‘stickier’, in internet marketing speak, the better.
And so Facebook’s algorithms were developed to deliver that goal. They learned what you like and provided more of the same with the aim of keeping you reading your news feed for as long as possible. One upshot of that is the ‘bubble effect’ of being served opinions that so closely match your own. If you are challenged by something you don’t like, you might go elsewhere. After the election – just as with the Brexit referendum – the result was one half of the country who couldn’t believe or understand what had happened. Their social media echo chambers hadn’t allowed them to take on board other points of view.
Put simply, Facebook’s raison d’etre is not to ensure that you are the most rounded, informed, socially and politically aware person you can be. It is to generate returns for its shareholders. And, as Christopher Wylie explained, this also provides a framework within which to deliver information – or misinformation – to highly targeted audiences.
Social media has become the most sophisticated propaganda machine ever created. It has deliberately been designed that way. Why are we so shocked when it’s used to influence people?
Facebook’s challenge is that ‘fake news’ may offer greater revenues than legitimate news. Truth has been subordinated to profit. As Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:21) Money is a remarkable litmus test of where our true loyalties lie – as Martin Luther commented, our wallets are frequently the last part of us to be converted to faith, after our hearts and minds. When truth is considered an optional extra, injustice inevitably follows.
In a world in which business drives truth and personal data is the currency we pay companies to access their services, why on earth should we be surprised that our identities – whether that means political affiliations or anything else – are also for sale?
Guy Brandon is the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, available from Muddy Pearl.