Last week I watched the poorly titled, but otherwise absolutely excellent Netflix documentary, The Great Hack; which explores Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US presidential election, the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum (the Brexit vote), and in various other elections worldwide.
I’m a prime target for this type of documentary. Not only am I left-wing, I’ve eschewed Zuckerberg’s misery factory (Facebook) since around 2014.
My reasons for abstaining from Facebook were not political. I just didn’t like the way people behaved on Facebook (even then); and, I didn’t like the way I behaved on Facebook either.
Of course, now we know that Facebook (and other networks like it) were deliberately coded that way.
In 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, spoke out about his tremendous guilt over growing the social network, which he felt had eroded the core foundations of how people behave towards each other.
I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.
The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.Chamath Palihapitiya
So around 2014, as I said, I stopped using Facebook. My profile still exists, I’m just not there. An easy solution to the problem, or so I thought.
When news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018, I voraciously read the excellent investigative journalism on the Guardian and Observer.
However, awful as it feels to admit this here, what I mainly felt at the time was vindication.
I’d felt for years that Facebook was a horror show – that it was bad for our collective consciousness, that it caused damage to individuals, and to our society as a whole.
And here was proof that I was right.
I was neither shocked, nor surprised that an unscrupulous organisation like Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook in this way. I wasn’t surprised that an unscrupulous organisation like Facebook allowed this to happen. I wasn’t surprised that those advertising campaigns were so effective, because that’s how Facebook works – it was built to allow information (or misinformation) to spread.
Dear reader, I missed the point entirely.
Last week, watching The Great Hack, I finally got it.
My feelings of vindication are neither here nor there.
This isn’t a story about unscrupulous organisations or individuals. It’s not even a story about right versus left-wing politics. It’s bigger than that.
Carole Cadwalladr put it best in her TED Talk in April of this year:
…it is not about left, or right, or “Leave”, or “Remain”, or Trump, or not.
It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again.Carole Cadwalladr
You can watch the full talk here:
Cambridge Analytica are no longer. But the problem isn’t solved.
It would appear that there were other organisations advertising on Facebook (and other platforms) using similar technology at the same time as Cambridge Analytica.
The problem is that these social media platforms are a black box. We don’t know who was advertising, (and therefore who was paying), we don’t know who they were targeting, and we can’t see the advertising messages they were paying to spread across these networks.
These messages they were spreading were not subject to any kind of industry advertising standards. These organisations were able to play upon people’s fears and spread falsehood and hate with no recourse.
In Britain we have laws which govern how much you can spend on an election. But we have no idea what was being spent, or where the money was coming from.
Facebook have this information. But they aren’t willing to share it.
On one level, I understand why they don’t want to share it. It would be an admission of culpability. It might affect share prices (although if past performance is anything to go by, share prices could actually increase).
But, there’s so much more at stake here. Like Carole Cadwalladr, I too want to ask Mark Zuckerberg et al:
Is this how you want history to remember you:
As the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world?Carole Cadwalladr
On September 10th 2018, the New Yorker ran an article by Evan Osnos which posed the question – Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks Democracy? Towards the end of the article Osnos notes:
Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve problem after problem after problem.
The question is not whether Zuckerberg has the power to fix Facebook but whether he has the will…Evan Osnos
Within this same article, there’s a quote from Adam Fisher’s book – Valley of Genius:
How much was the direction of the internet influenced by the perspective of 19, 20, 21 year-old well-off white boys?
That’s the real question that sociologists will be studying forever.Ezra Callahan, early Facebook employee
I recently read Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson, and find myself returning to the following quote:
… every advance of thought or invention must be paid for.Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson
We’re really paying for this one.