It has been a busy time for Cambridge Analytica (CA) and the DCMS Fake News committee, what with whistle-blowers in the morning, and disgraced ex-CEO Nixes in the afternoon. Okay, only one Nix, but one is enough. As I listened last Wednesday to Nix give evidence in parliament I thought, for a moment, what if he is right, and all of this is a global conspiracy of the liberal left to find a data-goat for their own political impotency?
Admittedly, it is clear CA has a somewhat murky business model, and that Nix doesn’t always tell the whole truth. But it is also obvious that his arch-nemesis and ex-employee Christopher Wylie is something of a self-publicist, that liberal Americans are looking to blame someone for Trump, that we liberals in the UK still cannot accept that Brexit will happen and yes, the MSM led by the Guardian are at war with the fake news industry.
Sleazy Nix was at least classy enough to avoid using the term fake news but, in terms of CA’s involvement or not in Brexit, the behaviour of Channel 4 in trapping him in a boasting mood, and his accusations against former CA golden boy Wylie, that was effectively what he was suggesting. And for a second there I found myself actually feeling something like sympathy.
It was at this point that I needed to take a break, sip a flat white, eat a Pastel de Natas (or what used to be called a custard tart before that whole globalisation gig) and try to work out who is faking who.
We come back to a fundamental problem I first began writing about back in 2017: What the hell is fake news? It is clear to me at least that the DCMS doesn’t quite know, and certainly the American senate has no idea based on their gentle chiding of a bemused Lord Zuckerberg of Palo Alto. All these middle-aged guys in suits trying to look relevant and angry, seem to think fake news is, well, news that is fake. Idiots! If nothing else I think that Nix’s blue streak while the C4 cameras were rolling, a thrillingly sordid roll-call of honey traps, the dark arts, a bit of blackmail and news fakery all in one gloriously unhealthy influence sandwich, helps us at least to better understand that the spreading of false news stories is really only the sticky tip of the digital dirty-tricks iceberg.
For all the furore, in the end CA’s business model is simply about how to use data harvesting and manipulation to tailor content to target individual users to influence them in their decisions. While some of this content was certainly fake news stories during the election of Trump, most wasn’t, and anyway who is really to blame for this? The data harvested by CA was gathered by Facebook and given freely by the estimated 84 million users that made up the total data set of Cambridge assistant prof. Alexsandr Kogan of which about a quarter was made available to CA. Yes, that data was gathered by CA via Kogan in a nefarious manner, but it was also freely given or rather, it trod the new line that exists between the public and the private realm, or what we might call the rise in neoprivate data.
All that you publish on Facebook is published. Philosophers call this a tautology, one that the folks out there still seem to struggle with. You said the things you said, you liked the things you liked, you shared the things you shared. Yet in your mind this data is somehow private or better becomes privatised when you think someone has taken it and used it without asking you, rather than shared it and thus raised your profile.
But they didn’t need to ask you. Facebook’s laxness when it comes to such matters being a thing of terrible beauty. They ‘own’ the data, you gave it to them, so it is not private or public but neoprivate. In fact, they not only own the data but, some economists argue, they own you because you are their product not their consumer. You think that Facebook is a service to you, but Facebook is a business selling data and ad space to others based on its knowledge of you which you freely gave up so you could see how your sister in law’s new patio is getting on. Simple isn’t it? Isn’t it? Am I the only one here who can see what is going on!?
Now consider the other side of the equation. According to Wylie, with the help of the possibly unwitting Kogan, CA got 320,000 or so individuals to filled out a psychological personality test for which they were paid a handsome fee of $4, which is more than I made from my blogging this year. They were also given access to a lovely little app, called thisismydigitallife, for which they paid nothing. It was this app. that then put their data in touch with that of their friends, around 160 per participant, and their friends’ friends and so on, up to 84 million users all of whom had given their permission, by proxy, to Facebook, to give their data to Kogan’s app.
For all the subterfuge here, there is also a perfectly balanced equation of narcissism and net illiteracy in all of this as well that typifies the neoprivate realm. You agreed to talk about yourself by filling out a form, and then you consented to talk about yourself some more, by clicking like or share. You really like to talk about yourself don’t you? Then you get upset when people actually start to listen. You gave your data, but you didn’t give your data for that! Didn’t you, really?
Overall the whole CA scandal is, well, not much of a scandal. The DCMS is both a product and distributor of contemporary moral panic that unfortunately the MSM are party to because the new digital world of news is an existential threat to ‘real’ news, as much as it is a threat to democracy. Truth is, however much you may distrust Nix, the people who gave their data gave it freely. The geniuses who put together two kinds of data, old-school psyche tests and new-world data harvesting, simply had a really good idea which actually has immense potential for the future of more democratically informed decision making.
The so-called fake news was actually almost entirely ads and who trusts them? And anyway, the data they ‘stole’ you had already given away to a third party, and it was that third party, Facebook in case you forgot about them, who then gave your data to other third parties. While the final cherry on the fake cake of news is that statistically it is not proven that the influence of fake news on the psyche of the electorate is in any way significant, although I bet the influence of adverts is.
Which all boils down to the fact that the DCMS is barking up the wrong tree because they are trying regulate the unregulatable. And the Guardian and C4 are on the warpath when it comes to data harvesting and the manipulation of the voters. And Wylie is dramatically overclaiming and underselling when it comes to his version of the power of CA to influence or even destroy democracy. “We broke Facebook,” he claimed in one interview. And the Russians are nasty but they are also clever, and they will use CA data but they don’t need it. And Nix is clearly not very trustworthy, and likes to show off, and is perhaps a little too debonair for his own good. And Facebook are well, just quite evil and doing what comes naturally to them. And we have all been a little bit naïve and stupid and now the world is kind of a bit broken. And that, BTW, is our fault, but we don’t want to admit it.
I wrote to the DCMS offering to put them right on the whole, you-don’t-actually-get-what-fake-news-even-is thing. If they had used my services, or if they are still interested, I do actually have a solution to all of this. Ban advertising on social media because in the end, for all the talk of data sets, click-bait and fake news, there is more than a whiskey and soda whiff of Madmen about the whole thing.
The technology may be new, but the industry is still back in the fifties, as are the techniques. Trick consumers into buying things they don’t want by working out what their fears and desires are and tailoring your ads to that. The only difference is, in the old days you may have bought an electric meat carver you never used, while these days you end up buying Trump.