Judging by the way Mark Zuckerberg was cross-examined before Congress last week, you’d think Facebook was on the brink of world domination. The story goes that Facebook’s nefarious ‘data harvesting’ functions helped the shady tech firm Cambridge Analytica achieve ‘informational dominance’ over crucial swing voters during 2016’s Brexit referendum and US presidential election. This, it is claimed, allowed the Trump and Brexit campaigns to ‘manipulate voter sentiment’, and pull off the two biggest electoral upsets in recent history.
In three short weeks, Cambridge Analytica has become synonymous with the subversion of democracy. Talk of ‘harvesting’ Facebook users’ data to build ‘psychographic profiles’ that ‘deliver elections’ suggests an awesome, even unstoppable power over voters’ minds and will. As one pundit put it, Cambridge Analytica has the ability ‘change voters’ perception of what’s actually happening.’ So powerful are the titbits of personal information held by Facebook that in the wrong hands, they can whip up enough prejudice to destabilise the world’s oldest democracies, divide society and control the world.
This theory is no doubt attractive to those still reeling from Trump’s and Brexit’s improbable rise. You can see how it would’ve been cathartic for Democrats to chastise their former darling Zuckerberg for allowing his platform to be commandeered by the other side. But when tested against facts, the prevailing narrative that big data is malignant to democracy encounters some uncomfortable truths.
Assumed in much of the Cambridge Analytica hysteria is that using big data to tailor advertisements to a particular audience represents a new type of electioneering first pioneered in 2016. But as anyone who has spent longer than five minutes on social media should know, the sale of targeted advertising is the core product in Facebook’s business model. What makes the current scandal different is that the data in question was collected through an app for ostensibly research purposes, only for it to be later handed to Cambridge Analytica, who used it to provide data services to the Trump and Brexit campaigns. And to be sure, monetising the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent is an unquestionable wrong for which Cambridge Analytica should be held to full account. But we should be clear that the substance of what Cambridge Analytica did for Trump and Brexit has been par for the course on Facebook for over ten years. Using peoples ‘likes’, app subscriptions, search terms and event attendances together with their age and location to fine-tune a paid advert isn’t a ‘manipulation’ of Facebook’s platform. It is the platform. So much so that when Facebook realised firms like Cambridge Analytica were using applications to build data profiles, they imposed heavy restrictions on third party data-gathering out of fears developers were mimicking the ‘social graph’ of its users that Facebook sells advertisers.
Nor was Cambridge Analytica the first mover in applying the dark arts of big data to politics. In 2012, Barack Obama was the first to enlist the help of Facebook apps to obtain insights into voters online lives to help his campaign craft the pitch perfect messages in key swing states. The British Labour Party used the same software for its 2015 election campaign. Ditto Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who in fact used Cambridge Analytica to spearhead his campaign’s data operations in 2015.
It is telling that in all these cases, the use of big data to inform digital campaign was praised as a forward thinking way of bringing electioneering into the 21st century. Witness the Guardian, who dubbed Obama’s 2012 campaign ‘the Holy Grail of digital campaigning’. The folks at Huffington Post lauded Obama’s data operation as ‘ingenious… a game changer’. This astonishing double standard says a lot about how eager many in the media are to delegitimise the two biggest mandates of 2016.
But putting aside this selective amnesia, it’s an open question whether ‘micro-targeting’ thanks to big data even works. After all, the use of surveys, focus groups and polls to craft a sales pitch for certain groups is hardly a novel concept. Big data operations are different in sophistication, but not substance, from a retailer who uses demographic information to decide what time slot to run an ad for their mid-year sale. They, too, rely on generalisations, which are often the product of educated guesswork. Consider, for example, that liking the page Hello Kitty was used by Cambridge Analytica as an indicator of a Facebook user’s political views, based on correlations found with others who had liked the same page. There’s no doubt that such patterns are useful. But it’s a far cry from ‘psychological warfare.’
If we’re honest, the only way this so-called scandal lives up to the hype is if you think the populations of Britain and the US are so daft that their vote was decided by the last sponsored meme in their newsfeed. Indeed, it reveals contempt for the democratic process itself. Because, after all, what’s the point in trusting the public with a vote if the electorate lacks the capacity to do anything more than slavishly follow sponsored slogans fed to them on their computer screens and iPhones.
Of course, the truth is that both the Trump and Brexit campaigns had quite the opposite of informational dominance in the lead up to each vote. In Britain, the Remain campaign was supported by the leaders of both major political parties, the vast majority of media personalities, business leaders and opinion-makers (including over 90 per cent of university academics) while raising double the funds of the Leave camp. A friend of mine who announced herself as a Brexiteer on social media in early 2016 found herself unfriended by no less than 24 of her London School of Economics classmates. Likewise, to be publicly pro-Trump in 2016 was to exclude oneself from polite society on most college campuses, corporate workplaces and cultural power centres across the US. That in spite of all this, voters decided to thumb their nose at the received wisdom of the day proves the opposite of this self-serving revisionism. More than any other political events in recent history, Brexit and Trump reaffirmed that democracy is a process done by the people – not a rubber stamp on what the technocrats have decided is for our own good.
This is why the Cambridge Analytica conspiracy needs to be defeated. By pathologising democratic expression as voter manipulation, it allows the media, universities, professional activists and supranational commissars to ignore the fact that they got it wrong in 2016 through every fault of their own.
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