An almost unknown British political consultancy firm Cambridge Anaylitica is now at the centre of a firestorm that has the potential to bring one of the world’s most powerful companies to its knees and have massive ramifications for New Democracy.
But should users really be worried about privacy in an age where we willingly become the mantelpiece in a global living room?
The story began a few weeks ago when Cambridge Analytica -- essentially a small data gathering (or data mining, which is now part of the social media lexicon) firm that also seems to have a political agenda -- was accused of unscrupulously gathering data from Facebook users and then selling it off to political parties, mainly to the Trump presidential campaign, in 2016.
How does that actually work?
Well, when we “like” things on Facebook and click on particular articles, stories, and even quizzes, we create our own unique data profile. Facebook keeps track of millions of such profiles and sells them to third party companies, like Cambridge Analytica, that in turn uses such data for various purposes like targeted advertising, including in politics.
The Trump campaign bought such data, sieved through profiles, and sent millions of American voters customized messages in a bid to influence their voting preferences.
Sounds nefarious, right? Not really.
What Facebook has done is not data breach. Not a single ounce of data was stolen or tampered with. When we open a Facebook account, we are willingly signing a contract with a data sharing company that will do what it has always set out to do: Share data.
And, at the risk of sounding condescending, when you take that selfie at your favourite restaurant and share it with your friends, you are not creating content for a bedside journal: You obviously want your life to be shared and looked at.
The controversy arises because Cambridge Analytica not only took your data, which is fair game, but your friends’ as well, something she may not have signed up for.
And Facebook’s main crime was not that it peddled your data to another company, but of negligence and not responding quickly enough when it realized that a third party was “stealing” data from users that had not given consent.
When we open a Facebook account, we are willingly signing a contract with a data sharing company that will do what it has always set out to do: Share data
We are the products
The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica brouhaha has several silver linings -- it has exposed Facebook for what it really is, not a “social networking” site, but a buyer and seller of data.
Its business model is simple: Advertising companies, political parties et al want to know how we think and feel, we willingly want to express those choices and emotions, and Facebook and its pals are perfectly happy to act as a conduit to pass on that information for a hefty price.
We are not customers to Facebook since we are not paying them a subscription -- instead, we are the products, our thoughts and emotions sold to the highest bidder, which we gleefully give consent to when opening a Facebook account.
Whether we are conscious of this entire process every day when we post a selfie is another question, but we definitely cannot accuse Facebook of stealing something we consented to give away.
The real crime
Cambridge Analytica’s actions, of course, are a different matter. It has passed off data fetched from unaware users on to political parties for financial profit. Such data is highly profitable for organizations because they are rich in political capital.
Our social media preferences give a glimpse to politicians about our peer groups, ideology, and ultimately, our voting preferences.
Influencing and sustaining those voting predilections is the end game of the buyers of political capital.
Don’t get me wrong, social media is not hoodwinking us to vote for a particular candidate. Most Awami League voters will end up voting for their party regardless of what they see on social media.
However, what sites like Facebook can do is colour the climate of political discourse that takes place on our daily newsfeeds.
Once we are identified as voters of a particular ideology or party, our newsfeeds may be tweaked so as to flood us with information that reinforces our already existing political leanings, thus securing a particular vote bank.
Such a process is an enormously potent force that I personally call the New Democracy, a slight misnomer because the process of micromanaging data to persuade voters has been going on for quite some time now.
Everybody does it
In the US, the Obama campaign is on record for gathering data about voting preferences and flooding voters with selected information to convince them. This process has also been used by losing sides like Ted Cruz’s campaign against Trump.
The reason why Facebook users and the media are on a witch-hunt right now is partly because of the hate anything associated with Trump usually generates, but also because Cambridge Analytica has gathered consumer information without the consent of the users.
When I took the quiz to find out which Bollywood celebrity I am, I did not know Facebook would be giving third party organizations access to not only my personal information, but my friends’ as well.
Therein lies the problem with New Democracy: Some of are unwittingly part of a train that has left the station without us knowing we are commuters.
So should we unfriend Facebook? You could, but before you do that, you must also acknowledge that Facebook is part of an ecosystem that considers data mining integral to the game.
When you go to an app store to download something as simple as a weather application, you are immediately bombarded with hundreds of suggestions about similar apps. What Facebook is doing is not unique, and such practices will continue even if Facebook itself ceases to exist tomorrow.
What we leave behind
Whether you are part of Facebook or not, you are going to end up leaving an information footprint behind that other organizations will pounce on. Facebook does it efficiently and at an immense scale, but data mining itself is inescapable.
Instead of demonizing Facebook, we can opt for making data mining a more transparent process. The first step is, of course, to know that our data is not only monitored but weaponized.
Our constant Facebook likes and clicks are used as bait for the way information is presented to us, and all this has a political agenda. Our Bangladeshi political parties may not be tech savvy enough to cotton on to this yet, but it’s just a matter of time.
Once we are conscious of the politicization of data, the second step becomes easier: Start looking for alternate sources of information, or, in layman’s terms, go to a library and read different books.
Don’t block Facebook. Instead, share this article, make it appear on your friend’s news feed, and let her make up her own mind.
Faruq Hasan is Political Adviser at the Norwegian Embassy in Bangladesh.