MICHAEL CLIFFORD: What did social media users expect?

What did you expect? You tell the world about your lifestyle, your habits, your likes and dislikes, your hopes, dreams and fears. And then you discover that the world is not offering a sympathetic ear, but instead milking you for all you’re worth?

What did you expect?

The world has been convulsed this week by the Cambridge Analytica story. The British company harvested up to 50m personal profiles from Facebook and used them to target voters in the 2016 US elections.

Newsfeeds to Facebook pages were fashioned to play on identified fears. Fake stories amplifying these fears were created and poured into the alternative reality that exists on social media.

In the echo chambers on social media, everybody thinks alike and has their feelings and opinions confirmed. Facts are an optional extra to the diet of news that is fed into the chamber.

If, for instance, your profile suggests you don’t like asylum seekers, there is little chance of reading a story that highlights the wretched plight of those fleeing war and abject poverty.

If you have liked stories on your Facebook page that confirm prejudices against any group from bankers to second-hand car salesmen to Travellers, then don’t expect anything to come through that might robustly challenge your prejudices. 

If you have no discernible interest in sport, then you won’t be fed sport stories. In fact, you will pretty soon come to forget that sport is followed by huge swathes of the population.

Facebook is the largest of the echo chambers, but other platforms are not far behind. Spend some time on Twitter following a few popular trends. Pretty soon you may come to the conclusion that a huge majority of people in this country are seething with rage.

Of course there are serious socio-economic problems that need to be addressed. And some of them are not being given due consideration.

But these matters are amplified exponentially in places like Twitter — often among a relatively small unidentifiable cohort — to give the impression that we are living in the most unequal, corrupt country in the developed world. Inside that echo chamber, revolution is just around the corner.

What did social media users expect?

An increasing number of people are now inhabiting these echo chambers.

These are the only places where they “consume” their news. Research by Reuters in 2016 revealed that 52% of Irish people only get their news from Facebook. That level has almost certainly increased in the interim. 

Throw in Twitter and other platforms and it’s safe to say that a large majority of the population inform themselves through a social media moderator. (Even old media like radio has got in on the act.

Listen out for presenters telling you that “your news” is on the way. The news is not the news. It’s your news. You can take ownership of it and do what you will with it).

News is now consumed just like food. Why would you ever go out and buy a meal which didn’t sit well with your palate? Instead of reading, watching or listening in order to be informed, or broaden horizons, the purpose is to “feel” the news. 

The best feeling of all is one of satisfaction in the widespread sharing of your opinion or anger. And social media has been to the fore in the rise of emotion trumping reason when it comes to attitudes to public life.

In such a world it was only a matter of time before some techno whizz kid devised a way to exploit all the data accumulated on platforms like Facebook for political purposes. 

Now, thanks to old-fashioned journalism from The Guardian and Channel 4 News, we have sight of the nuts and bolts of how exactly it was done. While stories like this always require illumination and detail, the surprise is that the revelations have caused such shock. What did you expect?

Some, in their innocence, might have expected there was substance to the warm, fuzzy feeling of peace and love projected by billionaire businessmen such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

They might have expected that the accumulation of all this data was merely to spread love and friendship.

Facebook and its fellow travellers are keen to remind you that they are not like other greedy corporate entities. They are “disrupters”, who break the mould, spread love, hold meetings around beanbags and high five instead of shaking hands. They are custom-made cuddly.

On Thursday, Mr Zuckerberg issued a statement in response to the Cambridge Analytica story.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data and if we can’t we don’t deserve to serve you,” he said.

Mr Zuckerberg’s mission is to serve you. He doesn’t want to use your profile to attract targeted advertisers. He wants to serve.

Just like those banks that spend millions on TV adverts that show the institution accompanying you on your journey through life, sharing those precious moments, fuelling your familial love, burning a hole in your pocket.

Mr Zuckerberg’s corporate mission is apparently to teach the world to sing from his hymn sheet of friendship and love. And along came some dastardly curs to spoil the party and use the data to manipulate voters and undermine democracy.

Ultimately, is there a really big difference between Facebook manipulating your data in order to make astronomic amounts of money through advertising, and others manipulating the same data to influence your vote?

Two local related matters arise out of the Cambridge Analytica story. In the first instance, it does make the recent kerfuffle about a public services card look a little silly, notwithstanding the cack-handed manner in which it was introduced.

Alexander Nix
Alexander Nix

The reaction to the proposed introduction was one of horror in certain quarters. Yet there has been no issue about huge numbers handing over their most personal details to a corporate entity to do with it as it pleases.

The other matter is the attitude of our politicians in data protection. Many of them are repulsed at the manipulation of democracy exposed in the Cambridge Analytica story. 

Yet the Data Protection Bill currently going through the Oireachtas has made special provision to allow for the processing of citizens’ data at times of elections. The processing can only be done by those who are running for election, or others acting on their behalf.

We are being asked to trust our politicians in manipulating our votes because this is the way things have always been done.

But now, in a time of Facebook profiles and fake news, the political classes are telling us that they should be trusted to use that data in a proper manner. Maybe they too want to spread some fuzzy love and happiness.

This will, as it always has, facilitate various political entities in manipulating voters. But merely because it’s always been done and it’s relatively primitive compared to the Facebooks of this world, that apparently makes it all right.

More on this topic

Facebook suspends ‘tens of thousands’ of appsFacebook suspends ‘tens of thousands’ of apps

British MPs ask Facebook to explain ‘discrepancies’ in Cambridge Analytica evidenceBritish MPs ask Facebook to explain ‘discrepancies’ in Cambridge Analytica evidence

Cambridge conCambridge con

Cambridge Analytica faces trial for ignoring data request enforcement noticeCambridge Analytica faces trial for ignoring data request enforcement notice


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