Facebook is currently in a world of trouble after news about how a chunk of data harvested off it was used by an analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, to generate insights allegedly used to help current United States President Donald Trump win the elections in 2016. While many observers wonder whether this attention is due to the closer-than-normal scrutiny from the media Facebook has attracted over the last couple of years as Democrats scrambled to find a scapegoat for that defeat, Facebook’s predicament has opened up a debate bigger than mere data privacy issues — how much insight into the human condition does humanity really need?
Advanced analytics applied to data collected from ordinary people’s interaction with social media sites like Facebook reveal stuff about us we are not fully-aware of at a conscious level. It’s like being shown a mirror that is able to reflect the person behind the face. Harvesting insight from social media data is a breakthrough in behavioural science because it allows us to see past the public persona and into our private and even subconcious chatacter. Unlike data collected from surveys and polls, data from social media interactions are more representative of natural behaviours, preferences, and inclinations — because, whereas we are conscious about what and how we respond to a survey, how we interact with, say, Facebook is uncontrived and driven by deeper personal motivations. As a result, social media data is unprecedented in both its richness and quality of representation.
I hear the secrets that you keep;
When you’re talking in your sleep…
Facebook may as well be singing these lyrics from the 1984 hit “Talking in your sleep” by The Romantics to its users. From seemingly benign interactions with content that appears on our Facebook feeds — what we like, what we subscribe to, what we comment, who we interact with the most, what we search, etc. — data is captured and accumulated in Facebook’s data banks, each data point a pixel that goes on to take its place in an ever-clearer picture of what our inner thoughts are and what drives these thoughts.
Back in 1984, the song — about a man in bed with his girl listening to her talk in her sleep — sounded creepy enough…
Don’t you know you’re sleeping in a spotlight?
And all your dreams that you keep inside;
You’re telling me the secrets that you just can’t hide
The girl has no idea of course. But her guy does and, most likely, acts on the information he collects from these nocturnal listening sessions. In a sense, we are virtually asleep in bed with Facebook and the reason we are so enamored with it is because it acts on inside information about us that we may not even be aware about. The girl in the song probably feels like her man does all the right things and pushes the right buttons all at the right times. Consistently. Just like Facebook today.
Multiply this more than 50 million times — the number of users that comprise the data set that fell into the hands of Cambridge Analytica — and we get a virtual spot-on statistical sample of the psyche of an entire society. In the hands of a politician hungry for votes, this translates to precise knowledge about all the right things to say, all the right buttons to push, all the right times to say and push said things and buttons.
“Inner demons” is how whistleblower Christopher Wylie reportedly described what they learned about the average US voter from the work they did analysing this data.
Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
In a sense, perhaps Donald Trump represents the embodiment of America’s “inner demons” if, as is evident, the quality of the data used is such in its richness, scale, and depth and breadth of representation as only a firm as intimate with its customers as Facebook is could collect. This raises the question of whether we really want our democratic politics to reflect what the electorate really think, including the demons that inhabit those thoughts.
It is interesting that the losers in this unprecedented use of personal data to influence an election were the Democrats. Liberal ideals, after all, are a recent innovation of human civilisation with the bulk of human history characterised by life under conservative regimes.
Perhaps Facebook data reveals that Americans remain, at heart, a conservative people and that the degree to which liberalism is embedded in America is an illusion created by inhabitants of its affluent coastal cities — a clever mass hypnosis that owes its success to these liberals’ access to and control over conventional mass media and the “popular” culture piped through it.
As their brethren in Silicon Valley trumpeted back in the early 2000s, the “new media” (what social media was called at the time) had “empowered” ordinary folk by giving them access to a wealth of information that bypasses traditional media channels — the very infrastructure that liberals actually relied on in the last 200 years to sustain their mass hypnosis of the American public (if it was such). These hipsters even cheered the crumbling of capital-intensive brick-and-mortar media organisations as they grew the value of their share portfolios snapping up Facebook and other social media stock.
The shadow indeed knows. Traditional media exhibits stuff people say with eyes wide open in front of a camera with a mike thrust before them. Social media, on the other hand, reveals stuff people say while talking in their sleep. Unlike the guy singing to his girl in that 1984 song, many of the truths revealed about us when we talk in our sleep is not as nice to hear and, perhaps, need to be “regulated” if, at least, to assure us that hard-fought-for liberal ideals meant to counter our inner demons — and even inner savagery — persist in our civilisation.
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