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Friday 6 December 2019
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We mindf—ed ourselves

Mark Lyndersay
Mark Lyndersay

"The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." - Albert Einstein

The list of benevolent inventions, created to help the human race that have been weaponised is long, so it's a bit surprising that it's taken us this long to realise that the wonders of the Internet, built on the open sharing of information, might inevitably result in abuse.

Christopher Wylie's new book MindF--k is another strategic tool, one that's been deployed to recast the notorious whistleblower as a naive innocent who found his desire to advance his research into data-driven sociological analysis perverted and abused by powerful political interests and greedy businessmen.

The simple fact is that the UNC was, over the last two decades, dramatically more clever and advanced in its thinking about the role of data in the electoral process than the PNM ever seemed to be.

In the run-up to the 1995 election, there were widespread reports of UNC troops on the ground gathering information on Palm Pilots, then a-cutting edge handheld technology device.

During the 2010 election campaign the People's Partnership coalition made extensive use of memes and geotargeted online advertising, swamping browsers with swaths of yellow and the face of political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The response to Wylie's book locally by TT officialdom has been, to put it charitably, embarrassing.

Nothing in the book wasn't news last year when the CA story broke, so pegging probes and investigations on year-old news because there's a new book to wave around stinks of opportunistic politics, when it happens weeks before the local government elections.

The National Security Minister's worry about data mining that might have occurred in 2010, following on his own publicly avowed distaste for social media and its impact on society, suggests that he may not entirely understand how digital harvesting of personal information works in the 21st century.

Both Digicel and TSTT have issued statements denying involvement and pledging their companies' commitment only to respond to legal requests by government.

To clarify, for our elected leadership, data is being harvested on online networks all the time. We give it up for the convenience of modern services and because the line between using a product and being the product has been so cleverly blurred that the idea of sharing intimate, targetable details about our lives is now commonplace and accepted.

A bank could not ask for the information we volunteer to sign up for social media services without raising eyebrows. A bank could not view and monitor our search histories, personal opinions, chat sessions and e-mails for its own advantage – but Facebook and Google do so every minute of every day.

Information shared freely on these services fuels a range of advertising and promotional purposes because that's how social media works and always has.

According to NapoleonCat, a service that monitors global social media use, there were 857,000 Facebook users in TT in October 2019. Instagram and Messenger, platforms also owned by Facebook, clock in at 400,500 and 476,000 users locally, respectively.

Most of those users voice their opinions and preferences freely, and it wouldn't take a hack to scrape all that data and analyse it, just a well-programmed digital bot.

This fulminating, inclusive of plans to interview Wylie, has the stink of E-mailgate about it: accusations that play to the party faithful while having little substance in provable reality or prosecutable practicality.

It's also stupid. And a new generation of voters knows it.

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