Revolutionary Measures

Facebook, electoral manipulation and Cambridge Analytica

It’s a well-known fact that on ‘free’ social media sites, users are actually paying with their data, allowing them to be targeted with advertising that should match their preferences, and therefore be of interest. But the current revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook show that the cost is potentially much greater than this, with personal data allegedly being used to microtarget and manipulate perceptions, and therefore heavily influence elections.

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While allegations into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum have been made for some time, with the company subject to multiple investigations, including the Mueller probe, what has brought it into the headlines more recently has been good, old-fashioned undercover reporting from Channel 4 News. It sent a reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman to find out how CA could help him influence a local election – and the results were not pretty. Even allowing for the bluster involved in pitching to a potentially lucrative client, CA’s now suspended boss Alexander Nix’s claims that he could use entrapment and bribery to bring down political opponents as well as microtargeting demonstrate a complete contempt for ethics.

The fall-out has been rapid. As a privately held company bankrolled in part by conservative hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, CA has not suffered financially – but Facebook saw its company valuation drop by over $40 billion in the last two days, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg summoned to appear at a parliamentary committee to explain how the data of 50 million Facebook members was allegedly used (and retained) by Cambridge Analytica. At the same time the #DeleteFacebook hashtag on Twitter has been trending around the world.

Use of propaganda and half-truths to swing elections and mobilise voters is obviously nothing new, but the combination of the intimate position of social media in our lives and advances in psychological targeting mean that the majority of people are simply not equipped to understand when they are being manipulated through the likes of Facebook. And clearly the controls on the data that developers can harvest, access (and retain) are too lax to protect people.

So, I think two things need to happen. Facebook needs to put in tighter controls and make it obvious what data people are giving away when they use the service, download apps or take surveys. But more importantly for the political – and ethical – health of the population, everyone needs to be better educated about social media and online behaviour. Most of us have learnt how to pick out bias in newspapers, on TV and in the traditional media, but the personalised capabilities and echo chamber mentality of social media is something that has been thrust upon us without warning or time to adapt.

In the same way that people need to be taught to recognise fake news, they need to understand when they are being manipulated online. This should start in schools and encompass the whole population – if Mark Zuckerberg is smart he’ll attend the parliamentary committee, show that Facebook is changing and announce a global education programme on how to protect yourself on the network. Otherwise, the Cambridge Analytica story has the potential to significantly damage Facebook, hit revenues and reduce user numbers. The ball is in his court.

 

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March 21, 2018 - Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] as head office, its 900 pubs all have their own accounts), the addictive nature of social media, misuse of personal data and the trolling of MPs and public figures on social […]

    Pingback by Why leaving social media is bad for JD Wetherspoon « Revolutionary Measures | April 18, 2018 | Reply


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