OK, so the big news, this week, and news with a Canadian connection, is that Facebook has banned Cambridge Analytica, and now, in turn, Facebook, which lost 5.3% of its share value in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, is being investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission over its (Facebook‘s) use of personal data.
Pictured above is Christopher Wylie of Victoria, BC, Ottawa and London, a former Liberal Party of Canada staffer and the brains behind the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scheme.
This article, in the Guardian, explains a lot about the who, why, what and how of the Cambridge Analytica data mining scheme which, as the article says, “was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the US electorate.“
Now, I have, just recently, commented on influence operations and on the connection between social media and information warfare. I’m going to reiterate what I said then: Facebook and Twitter and so on are NOT the enemy, but there are enemies ~ the plural matters ~ of liberal, secular, capitalist democracy they can and, as we see, do exploit social media in fascinating (and dangerous) ways. In the case of Mr Wylie and Cambridge Analytica it hinged on a notion that ““… politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”” That’s an idea that some people, Mr Wylie, certainly, and Steve Bannon and I suspect, Justin Trudeau “get” almost instinctively but “old, straight, white men” like me (and Andrew Scheer, I think) have to really work hard to understand.
But it is the
marriage incestuous relationship between data mining and harvesting, military information operations and social media games and quizzes that is the issue here. Data mining and harvesting is a legitimate tool for various kinds of commercial, intelligence gathering, military and political operations ranging from predicting fashion choices to terrorist bombing targets and voter intentions. There are, evidently, HUGE holes in how Facebook, for example, allows quiz and game apps to use the platform. The other interesting “take away” is that the target of political influence operations is not the deep dark secrets of the opposing parties’ war rooms, it is me and YOU and our friends and our viewing habits which can be “mined” to tell skilled analysts about our political preferences and our “hot buttons” which their political masters can push.
There are a lot of legal issues surrounding this and it will be meat for several political feasts but, for me, the big issue is that we now have a concrete example of modern, blue-on-blue* as we say, information warfare where there is no Chinese and only, it seems, limited Russian involvement through a company called Lukoil which has “been used as a vehicle of Russian influence in Europe and elsewhere;” but, in the main, these were Americans, Brits and Canadians spying on other Americans, Brits and Canadians for the benefit of American, British and Canadian political parties.
This is not the sort of thing that Facebook’s 2+ Billion regular users expect and agencies like the US FTC are right to investigate how Facebook let this go on … but, let’s be clear: Facebook and Instagram and so on are not organized spy rings, run by a shadowy intellectual elite; they are the 21st century equivalent of the Athenian Agora and just as people could and did conduct influence operations there, to whip up popular opinion for or against someone or something, so social media can be misused today. There will be, there already is a political reaction … many, especially the socially progressive will want to try to regulate the internet. I doubt that can be done … not with any useful effect.
What’s needed is for us, all 2+ Billion of us who use social media, to be better informed consumers of services and information. We, all of us, also need to be, instinctively, less inclined to “push” an electronic “button” and a screen and then say “Yes” when it asks to access our account information because, as can be seen from this incident, such a request may include giving access to our friends, too … and they never consented to that, at least I never did … I understand that’s asking a lot but it is the only way that we will prevent more and even worse incidents of this sort.
* The phrase “blue-on-blue” meaning, for example, “friendly fire” (which seems and oxymoron to me) derives from the NATO standard symbology in which the enemy is marked on the map using red symbols and friendly forces are shown in blue. Man made obstacles, mine fields or demolished roads, are marked in green and areas contaminated by e.g. chemical weapons are marked in yellow. Thus “blue-on-blue” refers to an attack made, accidentally, by friendly forces against friendly forces.