Time to shine a light on the dark side of the web

Time to shine a light on the dark side of the web

Many people, even some governments, think the Cambridge Analytica scandal does not really affect them. They may not have a Facebook account, or, if they do, barely use it.   Some do not care that their data has been shared without their consent. Maybe they live in a country where elections are fixed, or not properly contested, such as Russia or China.   Maybe they feel it matters little how the US elections turn out, whether Britain leaves the European Union, or how successful far-right groups are. 
They would be spectacularly and grossly mistaken. 
This whole sorry saga incorporates elements that affect us all, and highlights the great challenges of the digital age in the 21st century.
The scandal involves a social media company with 2.13 billion active users —more than Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram put together. Facebook is a company with $40 billion of revenue in 2017.  
This scandal evolved from actions by a researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, who in 2015 extracted data from the Facebook profiles of 50 million Americans using a personality app supposedly for academic research. According to a whistle-blower, Kogan passed the data to a political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica. 
This consultancy played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections, backed by the Mercer family, key financial backers of the alt-right and Breitbart media. Steve Bannon is a co-founder of the company, which like him went on to work with the Trump election campaign, as it had also with Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. 
The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica was recorded boasting that it had influenced countless other elections, including those in Nigeria, Kenya, Argentina and India, using everything from bribery, entrapping politicians with sex workers, creating fake IDs and employing former spies. Its role is hidden behind various other companies:  “We use some British companies, we use some Israeli companies … very effective in intelligence gathering,” he said. Another Cambridge Analytica executive described their digital work to Britain’s Channel 4 News: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda,’ because the moment you think ‘That’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?’.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal may be a catalyst for change leading to enhanced oversight, regulation and protection for our personal data. 

Chris Doyle 

Facebook lost $60 billion in market value in a week. It failed in its duty of care toward users and their data. Even now, the Facebook leadership diverts blame on to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. One wonders who else has been able to harvest data from Facebook for nefarious ends all because of Facebook’s lax oversight. 
Debates will continue for eons about how the misuse of data affected the US elections, the EU referendum in Britain or the elections in Italy, whether through Cambridge Analytica or by dirty tricks, fake news and troll farms.

This misses the point. The undeniable fact is that they could have been. Any election could easily have been successfully manipulated through these methods.  Democratic processes are at risk.  In non-democratic states, online tools can be, and have been, used to foment discord and division, with bloody consequences. All extremists and criminals benefit, from the Mafia to the far right, and of course the likes of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. 

Do we want a situation in which big data can be used to analyze and even alter voter behavior?  Are we content to be the digital fodder for behavioral micro-targeting using psychographic messaging?  
 In our digital lives, most users blindly trust that huge companies do not abuse our data. We are far too complacent. Apps on our phones have access to data about us and our friends, our contacts, our location, our photos, our shopping and eating preferences, our viewing and reading habits. Fake news has worked because we are too trusting, and we do not verify our sources. 

We have yet to work out the rules and boundaries of this digital universe.  The internet was marketed as a tool to break down barriers. Facebook’s mission remains “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”  All too often social media has actually resulted in polarization and division between individuals and communities. 

Most shockingly, the power of these digital titans means they are still not held to account, though hopefully this will change.  Governments are wary of upsetting them. They monopolize the fields they are in.  In the English-speaking world, what is the alternative to Facebook? An amazing 74 percent of internet searches go through Google, rising to a terrifying 93 percent in the mobile search market. 
Accountable agencies that oversee the information world need greater powers.  In Britain, it took four days for the Information Commissioner to obtain a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s offices. This is too long. Powers and resources do not match the task.  Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg needs to feel the heat, compelled to appear in front of committees in Congress and the House of Commons. 

With luck, this scandal may be a catalyst for change and trigger a debate leading to enhanced oversight and regulation of the web.  It is too powerful a tool that is increasingly in the hands of too few people.  Often it is a force for incredible transformative change, but controlling its darker side has so far proved to be beyond us. 
  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech
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