Posted by RV Raman
Let me state at the outset that I believe the current uproar about Facebook (FB) and Cambridge Analytica (CA) is justified. Whether it leads to anything substantial or not, a public conversation about how private data is harvested and used was long overdue.
Of course, a key reason it has garnered so much attention is that it was a US election that was allegedly meddled with. Many other elections may have been manipulated in the past as this article suggests, but little notice has been taken of the matter.
With that context, here is a perspective:
As long as there is money to be made by influencing individual choices, people will try to shape those choices, both overtly and covertly. FB and CA are just recent instances. It may well have been some other firm. Even if these two firms are “dealt with”, the future will see more firms misusing our private data. To that extent, FB and CA are almost incidental. As long as there are ways to pry into our lives and manipulate us, people will attempt to do so.
Consequently, it is up to us voters and consumers to guard against it, and not take the easy option of assigning the entire blame to FB or CA. Yes, there is an urgent need for an entirely new set of standards around how private information is harvested and used. And hopefully, we will see something on that very soon.
Meanwhile, as a private individual, I have little or no ability to influence what Facebook, Google and their like do with my data. Nor can I meaningfully influence what our lawmakers will come up with. My only way forward is to look inward and reassess my own response. And be less gullible.
But first, let me take a step back.
Influencing voters is not new. It has been happening for as long as politics has been around. Be it strident TV anchors drowning our views with their clamour, or wily columnists putting out polished pieces that appear balanced and objective, or whisper-campaigners insidiously biasing us, manipulating our choices has been an established occupation for a long time. The issue under discussion is just the next chapter in the same sordid drama.
Stripped of jargon and technology, isn’t CA also doing the same old thing? They too tried to influence voters, just as some in the established media have been doing. Some have even gone to the extent of setting up fake think-tanks and trying to manipulate Wikipedia’s content to boost one person’s reputation and tarnish another’s. This is in addition to “placing” articles and op-ed in the traditional press.
Are such machinations the preserve of any one part of the political spectrum? I think not. Some employ crude methods because they know no better. Others take a nuanced and a less obvious approach, wherein they appear erudite and independent (and therefore more credible). And a few even resort to planting crass posts that have ostensibly been authored by their opponents.
At the end of the day, we, the voters and consumers, are the victims of it all. This flood of duplicity will take newer forms as time goes by. Our best defence would be to develop the ability to see through such manipulations and to erect mental defences.
The first step is to become sceptical – even cynical – about anything I receive on social media or through the traditional media. I must not accept something just because it is neatly typed out and formatted. Nor should I blindly accept opinions without first understanding the writer’s and/or the publisher’s predispositions.
Among the most virulent of campaigns are the ones executed on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, where there is no practical way of tracing back malicious posts to their sources. Anonymity, we have seen, spawns irresponsibility.
Unfortunately, many of us knowingly abet this malice. We don’t think twice before forwarding (and thereby propagating) venomous messages that resonate in our own echo chambers. Sometimes, our conscience troubles us just enough for us to add “forwarded as received” to the message, and we hold ourselves absolved.
This deception is not the preserve of politics. A WhatsApp message has been circulating over the past year about a certain breakfast cereal brand. The message tries to malign the brand by suggesting that the manufacturer uses pork and beef gelatine in its products. Who authored such a message, is anyone’s guess. But the person who stands to gain the most would be a competitor.
In summary, this is not just about FB or CA – they are mere examples. The issue is much larger. Trust is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity in this hyper-connected world of ours. Publishers, platforms and content creators are adapting to this changed reality (and opportunity).
So should we, as voters and consumers. In this endeavour, scepticism would probably be our best ally.