Something really bothers me about the corporate apology choreography from Facebook’s headquarters.
I already noted the double-standard for panic in my column this week. In the world of data-mining and targeted advertising, Cambridge Analytica is nothing more than a Republican aligned start-up, that was still learning the tricks of the trade during the 2016 campaign. Their data set and their skill set for manipulating it were not very impressive compared with the Obama campaign in 2012. But when the Obama campaign used Big Data to figure out how to juice their turnout, their digital team were hailed as geniuses and they turned their data mining into a lucrative post-campaign life.
Carol Davidson, a campaign director for Obama for America admitted that the campaign was able “to suck out the whole social graph.” That phrase, “social graph,” may strike others as obscure, but in the parlance of Facebook, it means the map of social relationships. Often Zuckerberg refers to it as the map that Facebook’s data ultimately creates, a topography of all human relationships on earth. I’m not sure if Davidson means all of Facebook’s data, or all the personal data of all the scores of million of people who were friends with the 1 million people who allowed the Obama campaign to crawl their pages. Facebook was completely aware of their data-mining, and even signaled to them that it was fine to do this, at least until the end of the election, because Facebook’s engineers and executives were on Obama’s side.
The Guardian, the New York Times, and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom have all released exposés on Cambridge Analytica. All of them intimate that democracy itself is under threat from this shadowy organization affiliated with Steve Bannon, an organization that somehow “breached” Facebook’s data, and brainwashed the public into voting for Brexit and the Donald Trump presidency. In fact, it looks much more like the data set Cambridge Analytica collected, however unethically, was used to bamboozle their paying clients.
But what troubles me most of all is the way that Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Facebook more generally have publicly reinforced the bizarre framing given to this story by the organs of gentry liberalism.
Facebook’s top executives claimed to have spent days “investigating” what happened. This is rather like the top executives at PepsiCo claiming to spend days investigating the addictive qualities of high-fructose corn syrup. What could you possibly not know by now? Promiscuous data sharing is Facebook’s business model, the way artificial sweeteners are Pepsi’s.
This is why you were constantly nudged to play Farmville. Or why newspapers subtly encourage you to connect your Facebook account to them. It’s why people who spend a significant time online are constantly stalked by this eery feeling that the advertisers can read their thoughts. “How did they know I was pregnant?” “How did they know I wanted to celebrate this career achievement with a luxury watch?”
Now Mark Zuckerberg says he is planning to ban developers that “misuse personally identifiable information.” What does he even mean by this? The data Gods of Silicon Valley are just making it up as they go along. They are being scapegoated for the populist turn of politics across the West. And while you can pin some blame on them for the way their networks facilitate extremist movements, it was not they who ushered China into the WTO, lowered trade barriers, made a blunder of foreign policy in the Middle East, and led the West into a major financial crisis.
Now countries like Germany and France are demanding help from Silicon Valley in managing public opinion, while intimating strongly that their friendly Irish tax rates might be under threat. Barack Obama has personally lobbied Zuckerberg to do more to censor non-mainstream news sources.
That’s all to be expected. But it is astonishing to watch Zuckerberg play along. The promise to ban those who “misuse” information is basically a promise to act as a better censor and political manager. Watch out.