Wednesday, 28 March 2018

What is wrong about the Cambridge Analytica Whistleblowing scandal?

ELECTIONS! BREXIT! TRUMP! RUSSIANS! The latest big Guardian/Observer expose seems to have it all. But do we need to worry about targeting advertising? What is wrong here anyway?

I thought I’d put the stream of MPs (the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee) questioning Christopher Wylie on in the background today. I ended up watching it to the end. He seems to be a knowledgeable and eloquent young man who knows much about the new political frontline of social media campaigning and advertising.

It’s unlikely that data-led targeting can be put back into a box, even if we wanted it to. And our data is probably going to get leaked or stolen—it probably already has. We all need to understand this brave new world of targeted advertising and political messaging. But is targeted advertising and messaging really anything new?

Data theft?
The core activity that appears to be wrong and possibly illegal is that Cambridge Analytica (CA – shorthand for the various affiliated data companies involved) used information that was taken from Facebook on the basis that it would be used only for academic research, but which was then diverted for other (political and money-making) purposes. Eventually we’ll get a judgment about whether the academics, business managers or Facebook (or all the above) did anything illegal.

As individuals our data may be out there, but there have been numerous data breaches and this one probably isn’t that much more troubling than other ones. What other issues does the case raise? Well the CA people come across like a bunch of shits (wanting to make money at the expense of democratic ideals) but there are unscrupulous people all over the place, so we needn’t focus on that either.

Campaign overspending?
A major issue for the MPs is no doubt one of election spending breaches. One line is that the leave campaigns could breach spending limits, certainly a significant issue. (The fact that there were numerous leave campaigns also had the advantage of being able to put out different and contradictory statements about post-EU Britain). Hopefully this will be properly investigated but the electoral commission and its equivalent bodies abroad.  

A further related concern raised by Wylie was that CA could have been used to get around spending rules in other ways. The owner is super-right-wing rich guy Robert Mercer, who could offer subsidised (or free) assistance to causes and candidates he supports.

Russian interference?
If CA are as effective as they claim then this would have had a major impact on recent elections and a certain referendum. What has any of this got to do with Russians? The links are perhaps tenuous, though they will hopefully be investigated. Firstly, Russia is against Western unity and so clearly supports movements (populism, fascism and left-wing) that seek to undermine institutions such as the EU and internationalist politicians such as Hilary Clinton. Russia is a gangster state so can’t compete with the West economically, but the thugs can stay in power if they don’t fall too far behind the rest of the world. They could raise their people up but it’s cheaper to try to bring the West down by interfering in our democracies.

These are serious issues, but not that revelatory and are largely matters for the law or regulators.

What will trouble people is the issue mentioned above: targeted messaging/advertising. But is targeted advertising anything new? Retailers target their customers and politicians target their electorates in ways they think will be likely to elicit a response and most people don’t find this immoral or something that should be outlawed.

I think what is particularly concerning about the targeted messaging is that it is less open to scrutiny and challenge. If people’s online lives are increasingly cut-off then their messages aren’t as likely to be challenged. Political debate is debased and polarised. Echo chambers and silos abound online.  

Public discourse
If untrue or morally questionable campaign literature or advertising is posted through a door, then it might get publicised through the media. People still talk about the awful racist anti-labour materials used in the West Midlands in the 1960s, though most won’t have seen it. Those involved, or their parties, can be held to account whether legally or reputationally.

However, if online material of unknown source is focused on those who are likely to fall for it then sceptics may not get a chance to challenge it. Untruths can spread quickly online. Furthermore, no-one can be held to account as its anonymous. So, the mechanism which might cause people to hold-back on bad behaviour won’t apply online.

Campaign spending irregularities and the spreading of falsehoods for political gain are longstanding concerns. However, these issues become turbocharged in the age of social media.

Has unfair or immoral campaigning given us the wrong election results? Only if people have been duped into voting the wrong way. Its certainly plausible but very difficult to prove, depending whether CA are as effective as they claim to be.

Either way, we all have a duty (and a personal interest) in making sure we aren’t fooled by those seeking to manipulate us. This gets harder as more is learned more about what pushes people’s buttons and about what buttons each person has. We must all make sure we aren’t turned into a sucker.