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Saturday 21 July 2018
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Commentary

Should we care what Facebook does with our data?

JOSHUA SURTEES

Since the Cambridge Analytica data-scraping scandal, some (not many) disillusioned Facebook users are deleting their accounts. This is futile. Facebook already has your data and it’s keeping it.

For many of us, leaving Facebook isn’t a viable option. Not only would it disconnect us from our family and friends, we would effectively be turning our back on our community.

Besides, Facebook and its lack of privacy has been more a force for good than bad. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo would not have the impact they had if we were siloed into closed communities, instead of connected to the internet-at-large. Commercial enterprises are part of that vast community, like it or not.

Yes, Facebook has a duty to monitor the information that gets posted and shared, but is it fair to ask it not to use our personal data for commercial gain? After all, it provides us with a free platform that some of us have moulded whole lives around – from our careers to our relationships to our personalised networks of acquaintances and the content that has enriched our lives. If all we give in return is our demographic data and the right to monitor our online behaviour, that seems fair to me.

If Facebook then shares my data with third parties, do I consider that an invasion of my privacy? No.

We’ve been giving companies our personal data for years, by entering postal competitions, filling forms for mail order catalogues, signing the electoral register, and allowing our numbers to appear in the phonebook. The format has changed but we still don’t read the terms and conditions.

Personally, I find tailored ads and sponsored content less invasive than unsolicited marketing phone calls and junk mail. Facebook helps start-up companies target consumers online by sharing our data with them. It also shares them with consultancy firms like SCL Elections, run by former British military intelligence professionals, and its American branch, the Trump-affiliated Cambridge Analytica.

Now that we know our data is being used politically, not just commercially, does that change things? Few consider themselves easily manipulated or vulnerable. But is that true? “We find your voters and move them to action,” says Cambridge Analytica’s website.

The Big Brother implications are barely disguised: we know where you live. But how do they move us?

From UK Guardian reporting, we know that they spread propaganda. They did this in Britain’s EU Referendum, targeting specific groups of wavering voters with unsubstantiated claims like, the EU hurts African farmers, or an EU Army increases the likelihood of war with Russia.

They repeated the misinformation trick in Donald Trump’s election campaign, discrediting Hillary Clinton and exaggerating concerns around immigration and terror.

In TT, they helped the People’s Partnership bring down Manning with an election fever subterfuge, artificially generating the idea of a grassroots populist movement and letting it snowball, sucking up disillusioned marginals in traditional PNM seats.

The tactics are unethical, and antithetical to the idea of fair politics. Steve Bannon was Cambridge Analytica’s vice president until he quit to run Trump’s 2016 campaign. The company is the online arm of Trump’s alternative facts machine.

But politicians have always used propaganda to swing elections: on billboards and leaflets, in full-page ads, on TV broadcasts. Some people want to hear alternative facts instead of the truth.

That’s why tabloid news is more successful than high-brow news. This is the sinister heart of the matter.

We humans, with information instantly available to us from reputable sources, choose instead to believe memes and slogans that support our world view. It allows us to indulge ourselves.

We don’t acknowledge we’re being lied to, if it’s what we want to hear. Try telling Brexit or Trump voters they were duped. In Trinidad, PP voters were convinced they were voting for change.

Deciding which lies to tell and how to tell them is an art form Goebbels perfected in 1930s Germany. They didn’t need social media, just one man with a moustache and several million wireless radios. The trick is being repeated in Trump’s America, with the force of the internet behind it.

What other types of leaders will emerge into this dark new democracy? So far, in Britain and America, data mining has been used to help the alt-right. But could a left-wing version of Cambridge Analytica rebalance the political landscape? If so, what kind of digital strategies would it use?

The darkest testimony given by employee-turned-whistleblower Christopher Wylie to a House of Commons Select Committee, is that Cambridge Analytica spread fictitious, violent videos to dissuade Nigerian voters from electing a Muslim president in 2015. But their dirty tricks campaign for billionaire candidate Goodluck Jonathan, failed. He lost the election to Muhammadu Buhari.

They have our data.

They can reach us. But we, the electorates, still have the power to reject lies.

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