In the words of the self-proclaimed gay Canadian vegan genius who helped to mine data from over 50 million Facebook profiles, Facebook has now become a “psychological warfare mindfuck tool”. But how much is this being blown out of proportion? And should we really take measures to ensure that we can no longer be ‘mindfucked’?
Naturally, many have seen the best step is to just #deleteFacebook. Numerous newspapers have put together how-to guides explaining the best way to do so, and public figures like WhatsApp’s co-founder, Brian Acton – a company now owned by Facebook – tweeted bluntly: “Delete and forget. It’s time to care about privacy.”
The story goes that a British tech firm named Cambridge Analytica has been targeting psychological profiles on Facebook to sway political opinion. Using a personality test developed at Cambridge, a Facebook quiz app matched 270,000 users’ personality traits to everything they and their entire networks of friends like and post.
To give some degree of “data” to this seemingly fun and innocuous quiz was completely voluntary. But the consent box to tick before taking it presumably didn’t read “Are you happy for us to use these inner workings of your psyche to make you more likely to vote for Trump or Brexit?”
Simply put, we all know a personalised ad for a pair of shoes will pop up on Facebook because you nearly bought them the day before. Or that you’re likely to see umbrellas for puppies if you’re a dog-owner in Scotland. What we’re learning now, however, is that you might be pitched home insurance not just because you own a house, but because you worry more than the average person. Or, you could be shown a different kind of anti-immigration ad to your sibling because they’re more aggressive than you.
Here, we can find a few different narratives. There’s the full-on 1984 scenario – those in power are increasing control over how we think. There’s the more legal take – data firms like Cambridge Analytica are breaking more rules than just transparency by knowingly spreading lies and claiming to entrap politicians with “beautiful Ukrainian girls”. And there’s the more pragmatic view that Facebook’s not taking as much care as it should, so we should probably all just leave.
But then there’s the more sceptical, but nonetheless concerned, approach. Can I, as someone who takes pride in researching and articulating my political opinions, really be changed by a few Facebook videos somehow targeting my insecurities? This is likely an opinion voiced on all sides of the fence from those facing and throwing accusations that only the stupid can be brainwashed. That the solution is not to merely delete Facebook but to wise up on what you truly believe and not succumb to populist tactics.
Yet still this approach belies a fair bit of what this scandal is really about. From what we know so far, Cambridge Analytica obviously targeted the more likely swing voters at first, but from there paid more attention to “what kind of messaging you’d be susceptible to” rather than just isolating the most susceptible people. From this perspective, we could all quite likely be transformed by paid content. This content wouldn’t make us suddenly vote for our enemies – instead it bolsters or adjusts our pre-formed ideals.
Secondly, though the data was gathered through this Facebook quiz app, Cambridge Analytica’s scope stretched far beyond Facebook content and instead towards the entire “bloodstream of the internet”. Its managing director, Mark Turnbulll, has boasted about how the firm’s vast “Crooked Hilary” campaign was spread across innumerable blogs and websites. So, again, from this perspective, it’s hard to argue that you wouldn’t shift your outlook on something the whole internet seems to agree with.
With these points combined, could it be the case that elections will now always be won by the candidate which has the money and power to wield the greater force from psychological data? For many have been quick to note that, of course, similar tactics were used to elect Barack Obama, and many more votes throughout the course of political history.
My gut answer is still a strong and hopeful no. The power of this science cannot be ignored, but doubt has been cast on how important it actually was to the Trump campaign and whether Cambridge Analytica was even involved in Brexit. To consider this as any kind of “data breach” has also been refuted by Facebook as no real sensitive information, like passwords, was leaked. Instead, we can just agree that a mere 50 million of its users (2.5% of everyone on Facebook) had their deep cerebral demons remoulded and individually drip-dropped onto their screens.
The moral for now is probably to just use Facebook less for a number of reasons and to go about life “with a healthy dose of scepticism”. But then again, am I not also just a part of the barrage of information gradually shifting your opinion on this through Facebook? Like me, you should probably keep looking around to make sure you believe it.