It took a concealed camera, some loose talk from the now-suspended Cambridge Analytica CEO and lurid references to Ukrainian women to get people to focus on the issue of the role played by data analytics in political campaigning. Until recently, that subject has primarily been of interest to privacy advocates and those worried about the steady development of what we used to call a surveillance state but is now more properly called a surveillance civilisation.
But the scandal is most accurately seen as an intersection of a number of separate privacy threats, rather than an example of particularly malevolent Trump-aligned actors.
First, this isn’t about some sort of breach of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica. This is Facebook. This is how it makes so much money — it compiles information at a granular level to enable people who want to sell things to you to profile you personally, enabling microscopically targeted advertising. That’s why advertisers and marketers love social media more than traditional mass media. The mass media just aggregates eyeballs into a few demographics. Social media allows individual tailoring. Facebook does it, and it sells information to third parties to allow them to do it.
Ask Senator Pat Toomey. Facebook itself advertises how it helped Toomey, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, win a difficult election through a campaign that “used a made-for-Facebook, audience-specific content strategy to significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability for a US Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, contributing to his re-election … To ensure its ads reached voters most likely to re-elect Senator Toomey, the team matched 8 first-party data files to Facebook using Custom Audiences.”
Second, as Crikey noted on Monday, political parties do this themselves anyway. Our major political parties, which have access to the electoral roll, have profiled every voter, using every possible publicly available piece of information. You’re not allowed to see their profiles of you, because they made themselves exempt from privacy laws. Social media is merely one source of information for such profiles. The challenge of social media is logistical: collating information and linking it to an individual profile, which means the task of “scraping” information off social media profiles is a lucrative opportunity for companies that have the right tools — or also, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, can exploit information voluntarily provided by people dumb enough to do an online quiz.
Third, this isn’t just about Facebook. The monetisation of private information is now the core business model of the internet — we have constructed a vast communications network which has in-built incentives for companies to destroy our privacy to make a buck. Private data is the new oil, an endless resource surrendered by people who don’t know any better, with each single individual piece of information, innocuous in itself, increasing the value of every other piece of information already collated — meaning the value of the information you can collect increases geometrically, not arithmetically. That’s why Facebook and Alphabet are so astonishingly profitable.
Fourth, governments are no different. They might lack the profit motive to collate private information (although they can make money selling your data), but they are incentivised by the illusion of control that colossal amounts of private data offer. That’s why relentless accumulation of personal information extends well beyond security agencies to agencies like the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which systematically override privacy concerns to collate personal information merely because they can, and health agencies, which have a vast trove of health data, and the Immigration Department, which wants to accumulate all possible data about both citizens and visitors, including biometric data.
Fifth, there’s a basic security problem at the heart of all this. It’s one thing for Facebook, and government agencies, to collect and hold huge volumes of information. What happens when they sell it to, or hand it over to, third parties? Many of the most serious data breaches involving personal information held by government agencies involves contractors and outsourced providers who lack both the interest and resources to properly secure data, but to which companies and governments blithely hand it anyway.
Finally, the privacy breach is the thing — not Trump. Despite its boasting, Cambridge Analytica did not defeat Hillary Clinton. It wants you to think that so that it will attract future business. Elites are always ready to subscribe to the idea that low-income people are far more susceptible to being manipulated by sinister forces than they themselves are. Your average well-educated middle or high-income voter thinks they themselves can easily resist marketing and manipulation, but that everyone else can’t — that’s why we’re always being told we need to ban alcohol advertising, and ban soft drink advertising, and ban gambling ads.
And, we like to tell ourselves, Americans didn’t really vote for Trump because they wanted him to win, but because they were somehow conned into voting for him by clever marketing and fake news and Russian bots. Those things all happened, and maybe they shifted some votes. But they don’t explain why Trump won, or was even competitive when he’s a well-known fraud, liar, bankrupt and self-admitted sexual predator. He won because he exploited a deep resentment about the political status quo, not because someone manipulated Facebook data. Focus on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, by all means, because they want to destroy your privacy and flog it to someone who wants to sell you shit. But they’re not the real political issue.