Editor: Hannah Salt
Script writer / Assistant Producer BBC
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the recent Cambridge Analytica File revelations is not the way the firm used the private information of 50 million Americans to influence their online behaviour, or even the fact that Alexander Nix, CEO of its parent company SCL Group, lied to a parliamentary select committee on fake news about whether they harvested the data from Facebook accounts. Instead, perhaps the most illuminating revelation amongst my circle of friends has been the complete and utter lack of surprise. It is no revelation.
So when did we become so passive in the collection of our online data, the digital fingerprint of our daily lives? Are we now complicit in its utilisation by advertising and marketing agencies and, more sinisterly, political think-tanks with the ability to autopsy our core beliefs and ‘nudge’ our personal philosophies? The issue of our data’s availability to third parties is the creeping vine nobody has bothered to tend, until it threatens to break through the window.
Every time I don’t read an updated terms and conditions from Facebook, Google or Microsoft, am I condemning my own autonomy? No, of course not, and nobody reads those things anyway – right?
But when did the shift occur? We all understand our data is collected and pushed back to us in the form of fertility testing kit advertisements (once you hit 30 as a female) or dating sites, when Facebook thinks the change in your online behaviour suggests a break up. This has always been creepy, but do you think you could you be persuaded to vote differently? 50 million Americans’ identified as ‘floating voters’ were targeted specifically with this aim. According to Cambridge Analytica our acceptance of, or shift in allegiance to a certain idea can be boiled down to a simple algorithm. A formula for persuasion.
Whistle-blower Christopher Wylie has expressed guilt and regret in his role since the Observer led with these revelations, which didn’t stop Facebook deleting his account. However the culture of sharing ourselves completely with an unseen, online world was the perfect fertile ground for his former company to take root.
As our bubbles of online engagement shrink and constrain us to the echo chambers of our own beliefs, and politics across Europe and the US becomes increasingly polarised, increasingly siloed, the lack of ‘cross-pollination’ is a dangerous indication. The need to challenge, and defend ideas in normal political discourse is being replaced with retweeting a meme, or sharing a post. When we use such posts, we stamp a badge on an already existing idea – saying ‘I agree with this’ or ‘I don’t like this’, thus organic thoughts are rarely cultivated. What Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2017 US Presidential election tells us is that political engagement is high, but never has Socratic questioning, and deeper interrogation of why we hold a belief to be true, been more necessary.
What would Himmler have done with such an effective propaganda machine? What could Pankhurst have done with it?
There’s no answer yet, but we can and must do more to recognise organic thoughts and have more interactions IRL about our views. That means having the difficult conversation with that relative who voted Leave, or that online troll who calls you a “Feminazi”. Starting from a point of agreement, no matter how much of a needle in a haystack that can be to find, is better than always pushing back from a position of opposition.
We don’t want to break our own algorithms, but for the sake of democracy, perhaps we should.