I’m a peace activist who has been working with online targeted advertising and member profile databases for over 20 years. My head is spinning right now as I try to follow lots of breaking news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and 50 million stolen profiles, about the Mercer family (which financed much of this to help elect Trump), and about the mysterious British military contractor SCL Group (which seems to own it all), My head is spinning even though I understand the technology in play here fairly well. I can only imagine how others must feel.
Many activists and progressives are calling out Facebook and other social media giants as the evil force behind a new crisis in privacy. Edward Snowden laid out a clear position on Twitter on March 17 as stunning revelations about Cambridge Analytica were coming out:
Facebook makes their money by exploiting and selling intimate details about the private lives of millions, far beyond the scant details you voluntarily post. They are not victims. They are accomplices. - @snowden
And followed it two hours later:
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. - @snowden
Should we try to remove Facebook and other tech giants from our lives? It’s a poignant indicator of how much we are already enmeshed in social webs that many of us would find this difficult for a personal reason: without Facebook, how would we keep in touch with our grandparents and high school friends? How would we know when so-and-so has their baby and what they named it? The massive database of personal information that has been used to divide our societies with misinformation and hateful propaganda is the same database we all helped to fill, simply by sharing personal experiences with our loved ones. The experiences felt personal, anyway. We didn’t know how closely Big Brother was watching.
But the fact that Edward Snowden used Twitter to post his blistering words about Facebook reveals how deeply embedded these tech giants are in all our lives. Twitter is not a tech giant — yet — but it is a for-profit tech company that may eventually be acquired by Facebook or Google or Amazon or Apple or Oracle or Microsoft. When we speak of Facebook, do we think about all the other Facebooks around the world? They use Xiaonei in China, VK in Russia, DesiMartini in India, StudiVZ in Germany. Do we even understand the depth and breadth of the new digital community space that many of us wish to leave? Are we thinking about those people around the world who are still unconnected and wishing to be more connected, as well as about the many kinds of people for whom sites like Facebook have presented a lifeline of accessibility?
To help us find the right path through this perilous thicket of social media uncertainty, it helps to dig deeper into the details of exactly what Cambridge Analytica and Facebook stand accused of today. Thanks to a brave whistleblower named Christopher Wylie, we know that Cambridge Analytica gained illegal access to data about 50 million Facebook users seeded from a particular quiz app created by a Russian developer named Aleksandr Kogan, and supplemented by massive harvesting of voluntarily contributed personal information from the friends lists of Facebook members who took this “fun” quiz. "Friends lists" themselves are often public, so it's easy to see how a relatively small group of quiz respondents could lead to a harvest of 50 million profiles.
This is a story that begins in triviality and ends, possibly, with Donald Trump's narrow electoral win in 2016. Similar operations within Cambridge Analytica are also being uncovered in Nigeria and Kenya, and some are also citing evidence that CA’s operations supported the Brexit campaign.
How, exactly, was this data used to sway an election? I was clued in early to some answers here over a year ago when I attended a keynote speech at a tech conference by the incisive journalist Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. She gave examples of the specific types of propaganda operation the Trump campaign used so effectively in the USA. These were targeted to precise communities, but often the goal did not involve firing up Trump’s base. The main thrust of the operation, according to Tufekci, was to erode minority support for Hillary Clinton by delivering poisonous and blatantly false news stories painting Hillary Clinton as a racist and an enemy of minority causes.
A characteristic example of the special capability Facebook’s precise targeting offered, Zeynep Tufekci explained, was to deliver these ads only to a set of selected individual African-American voters (identified through Cambridge Analytica’s research) designed to allow this blatant propaganda to largely avoid wider public inspection. We still don’t know what ads were targeted at African-American Facebook users in swing states in September, October and early November 2016. They have disappeared from the public record — indeed, they never were in the public record. Facebook ads are ephemeral, gone as soon as they are seen. We can't prove even today that these nefarious propaganda campaigns were effective in suppressing minority support for Hillary Clinton in swing states on election day. It's a theory that's frustrating in its uncertainty, because the lack of transparency that made this "invisible" wave of advertising so effective is the same lack of transparency that leaves us unable to measure how far it went, and what effect it had. (All we do know for sure is that these targeted Facebook ads were bought and delivered; a sample can be seen in the image at the top of this page, which comes from the Channel 4 video exposing Cambridge Analytica's sales pitch that was released this week.)
A path forward for a trustworthy future use of social media services can be found in the fact that the core advantage the Trump campaign gained from precise targeting was the ability to spread vile propaganda only to intended recipients without wider public visibility. Visibility and transparency are what we need to fight this all-too-effective new wrinkle in electoral dishonesty. Blatantly dishonest ads must be exposed to the wider public, and at the very least we must demand that any political campaign ads bought from Facebook be open for public view, along with the targeting parameters of the ad buys. This is a form of regulation that can and must be coded into law — and quickly.
As a peace activist who wishes to remain within the ecosystem of popular social media, I emphatically support new regulations that can help to defang the monster of fraudulent, malevolent data-driven social media political advertising. We need accountability for all advertising, and if we're going to blame Facebook for spreading fake news, let's remember to also blame Citizens United for allowing secret parties to pay for it.
Transparency is what we need here. Anybody who is purchasing advertising owes the public open information about what ads they are running and to whom they are targeting. If transparency can be achieved, that goes a long way towards making Facebook and other tech giants comfortable again for the kinds of normal interactions we all enjoy.
Or should we follow Edward Snowden’s advice and avoid Facebook altogether? There are good enough reasons to do so, including the fact that some psychological research studies show that the enjoyment and connection Facebook brings into our lives is often accompanied by loneliness and feelings of inferiority. Indeed, many human beings never wanted their laptops and phones to become central to their social lives. Many human beings never even wanted laptops and phones at all. These “innovations” were inflicted on us. We never got to vote on whether or not Facebook should be invented.
Edward Snowden is one tech culture authority I respect, and another is Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web itself in 1989. He also used Twitter this week to weigh in on the Cambridge Analytica scandal with a series of nine messages that begin here:
This is a serious moment for the web’s future. But I want us to remain hopeful. The problems we see today are bugs in the system. Bugs can cause damage, but bugs are created by people, and can be fixed by people. (1/9) - @timberners_lee
Should we stop using Facebook? Well, even if we do, we will still live in a society that uses Facebook. I’m glad that some progressive activists I know are actually leaving Facebook, and I’m even gladder that some progressive activists I know never started using Facebook! We can’t all adhere to the new behemoth — we need to cherish our individuality above all, nourish our ability to live outside of society, always keep the “anarcho” in “anarcho-pacifism”.
With all that said, though, I’m sticking around in the social media ecosystem. I’m going to fight to make it better, and right now that means more transparency. Let’s see what we can share in the light of day. The Internet revolution always carried the hope that a networked world will be a more peaceful world. This is the main reason I have striven to be part of this Internet revolution. Lately, our unregulated tech giants have not delivered on this promise, and may have even recently helped to make our suffering world worse, more hate-filled, more divided. We need to fix this problem without letting go of the hope, because the hope remains as important as ever, and we are hurtling towards a technologically advanced future one way or another. The tech-networked space is real and affects all our lives, so let’s occupy it.