A social media bombshell exploded over the weekend. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed that his ex-employer, British-based data company Cambridge Analytica, had harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users without their consent, and had then used that data to create a tidal wave of personalised fake news and voter-influencing content. At the time of writing, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has yet to offer any statement on the matter, though Facebook itself has issued a statement denouncing the allegations, if true, and promising to undertake a thorough audit to determine their veracity.
Since that initial revelation, the floodgates have opened. It was reported on Monday that a sting by British broadcaster Channel 4 had caught executives from Cambridge Analytica boasting of being able to offer any number of dirty tricks in their campaigns against clients’ rivals—among them fake bribery operations, as well as seduction via the hiring of prostitutes. Cambridge Analytica chief exec Alexander Nix was recorded describing the tactics: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.”
As per The Guardian on the Channel 4 report:
When the reporter asked if Cambridge Analytica could offer investigations into the damaging secrets of rivals, Nix said it worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to look for political dirt. He also volunteered that his team were ready to go further than an investigation.
“Oh, we do a lot more than that,” he said over dinner at an exclusive hotel in London. “Deep digging is interesting, but you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true and make sure that that’s video recorded.
“You know these sort of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption.”
The battle that was the American Presidential election of 2016, popularly seen as having been fought and won on Facebook, can now likely add another player onto its ever-expanding roster of gradually revealed participants. As Dustin reported yesterday:
There is every reason to believe that the Trump campaign was in on this from the beginning. Ultraconservative billionaire Robert Mercer helped fund Cambridge Analytica; Stephen Bannon sat on its board and was its former VP; Corey Lewandowski met with them even before Trump launched his campaign; Michael Flynn was an advisor; and Jared Kushner and Brad Parscale officially brought Analytica onto the Trump campaign. Kushner himself bragged about the kind of tactics they used in the election.
In response to the news, Twitter has been abuzz with the hashtag #DeleteFacebook.
So to sum up: It turns out that an unscrupulous corporation has made it their business to harvest and take advantage of the mountains of personal data that we voluntarily feed into the virtual world, in order to try influence real-world events. Raise your hand if you are surprised by this. Now, take that same hand, and use it to repeatedly slap some sense into your permanently half-asleep brain.
There can, of course, be no-one really surprised by the revelations that are pouring out now, and that will keep pouring over the coming days and perhaps weeks. After all, Facebook, like pretty much all of the internet, is in the data business. This business relies on our ready cooperation. We submit to a near-total monitoring of our interests, opinions, beliefs, friends, habits, and movements, and in return we gain a bit of convenience. The fact that, short of our actual physical self, essentially our entire being is mapped out, stored, and analysed, ready for selling to the highest bidder, is a price we have all decided is worth paying for what we get in return. Privacy, as we once understood is, is a long-gone luxury, a curious relic of a bygone era, sacrificed on the altar of convenience. It didn’t happen overnight, of course; and while we now know what we signed up for, the gradual rollout and bit-by-bit expansion of this all-pervasive matrix meant that our consent was teased out of us, coaxed like a moth to a flame. Nevertheless, though it may have not been in exactly an ideal or open fashion, when it came down to the wire, we let it happen, we gave permission. Even when heroic individuals appeared along the way, willing to risk everything to bring us forbidden knowledge, we gasped in shock and screamed in outrage before eventually returning to meek acquiescence, frivolous distraction, and ridiculous tribalism.
One such hero along the way was Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor turned whistleblower who fled the country of his birth, into exile, after revealing to us that our intelligence agencies were involved in an almost unimaginably vast project of un-targeted data collection. On hearing the news we rattled our sabres and threatened our officials, but nothing really changed. Because the truth was: Republican, Democrat, it didn’t really matter—the right of the population to privacy seemed just about as outdated as that of the promise of secure employment. Like the rampant form of unrestricted neoliberal capitalism so in vogue despite all damming evidence against its evils, as far as the powers that be were concerned, the irrelevance of privacy was a foregone conclusion, a cross-party consensus. And, ultimately, we let them get away with it. We knew Facebook (and Google, and Amazon, and everyone else) was engaged in the same game as the NSA and their international counterparts. But still we let it happen. Fundamentally, this is an informational disaster of our own making. Snowden himself tweeted this in response to the Cambridge Analytica revelations:
Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as "surveillance companies." Their rebranding as "social media" is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 17, 2018
Make no mistake: What these companies have done, and are doing, is an absolute scandal. But every time there is an explosion like this, when the scale of the rottenness of our systems is partially revealed, powerful forces get to work, marshalling all the means at their disposal to ensure that the blast is contained. That the scope of investigation is carefully limited. This is what you will see happening now. Individual players will be targeted. Cambridge Analytica will be condemned. Facebook will be lambasted. Potential Russian influence will be decried.
But these are all just symptoms of a larger rot. And it’s that rot that the big players will be assiduously making sure goes unaddressed. They will want you to forget that our rapidly waning ability to think critically, exploited now in bold and terrifying ways by the new agents of fake news, was nurtured and encouraged for centuries by the mainstream media. Those old, established outlets of serious tone and august appearance. They are the ones who have lied and deceived and served power over and over again; they are the ones that by making a casualty of truth laid the foundations for this world, this tapestry of meaningless partisanship. Yet it is they who we will be encouraged to put our faith in. Politicians, in thrall to a destructive capitalist consensus; the media, in thrall too to the very same system; and gigantic, unaccountable corporations—deep down we know who is really responsible for the mess we’re in. After all, we let them get away with it, over and over again. Now, in the aftermath of a minor crisis, they will want to limit the terms of debate to make sure that it stays minor, remains localised. It’s up to us to make sure that that doesn’t happen. It’s up to us to use this opportunity to go after everyone—not just the individuals exposed in this particular scandal, but also after the systems that enabled them in the first place. Because as Lester Freamon once said: ‘You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.’
There is a quote from Carl Sagan’s book, ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark’, that is apt here:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.