Digital deceptions

Before Cambridge Analytica (CA) mined Facebook data from 50 million users for  “psychographic” profiles that could influence the US elections, it reportedly honed its methods in Trinidad. A Guardian story published last May found that in 2013 the company had used “government contacts … with Trinidad’s national security council” to set up a pilot project that allowed it “to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.” Trinidad’s former national security minister responded to the report with a comprehensive dismissal: “Nothing like this ever came across the National Security Council when I was the minister of national security, absolutely not. I had no knowledge of this whatsoever.”

A Bloomberg article published four days ago, however cites sales documents from SCL (CA’s UK affiliate) that boast about how “it helped a candidate in Trinidad by emblazoning graffiti slogans around the island that ostensibly were posted by young Trinidadians.” The “client” was then able to announce a platform that appeared to take heed of the slogans and “claim credit for listening to a ‘united youth.’” Separately, Cambridge Analytica’s website notes that: “Ultimately, the employment of CA’s research-based differential campaigns and establishment of consistent policy and variegated communications contributed to the People’s Partnership Coalition’s landslide victory.”

Bloomberg reports that SCL also did research for the St Lucian government in order to help it tackle a crime wave. It then agreed “to help then-Prime Minister Stephenson King on his 2011 reelection campaign for free.” Reportedly, if reelected the King government would pay US$1.9 million for a public-health campaign to reduce smoking and obesity. Bloomberg’s source claimed the actual cost of the health campaign was $1 million and that the surplus funds would have been used to compensate SCL for their political advice.

Every West Indian, irrespective of their political preferences, should be deeply troubled by these reports. Politics here is already too divisive. The potential for third parties to mine our data for insights that will make it even more so hardly bears thinking about. Firms like CA specialize in tactics that go much further than broadening a client’s appeal – as in UNC’s use of slogans. In the 2016 US elections, for instance, CA advised a Republican Political Action Committee (PAC) to overwhelm rival candidates with negative advertising in order “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home.” Digital voter suppression combined with equally distasteful incitements of the base can easily tighten if not actually win political races in key districts. After the bitter US election, it is not difficult to see how similar dirty tricks could work on our electorate.

Twelve years ago, Time magazine told its readers that each of them, individually, had been chosen as its “Person of the Year.” This moment of self-congratulation was instructive. At the time, sites like Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Flickr, Google, MySpace, and YouTube seemed to be transforming everything – from the way we shopped, shared information, and consumed news – into new systems that worked faster and were more engaging. Time’s Lev Grossman explained that the rise in user-generated content – often referred to as Web 2.0 – was a watershed moment which saw “the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing”; he added that it “will not only change the world, but also change the ways the world changes.” Today, the misuse of our data and the ease with which these networks can be flooded with disinformation suggest that such optimism was dangerously naive.

In a prescient 2011 book called The Googlization of Everything Siva Vaidhyanathan notes that the near universal adoption of services like Google places users at the risk of “infrastructural imperialism.” He warns that “uncritical faith” in Google, an acceptance of “its claims of omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence” has led us to grant its search results “inordinate and undeserved power.” (Comparable trust has greeted the rise of Apple, Amazon and Facebook.) Similar optimism during the infancy of the airline and automobile industries produced a raft of undesirable outcomes.

As Vaidhyanathan observes: “These technologies of mobility and discovery are dangerous not just because they physically endanger their users, but because we use them recklessly, use them too much, and design daily life around them.” The ubiquity of cars and planes, for instance, has tended to conceal their outsized influence on our societies: “We have designed our environments to serve cars and planes instead of people. Our political systems have been used to favor and subsidize these industries, even as they have been held up as models of free enterprise.” Our dependence on new communications technologies is no less complete, and no less dangerous.

Slate’s tech columnist Will Oremus correctly notes that the “larger scandal” for Facebook “is not what shadowy misdeeds it allowed Cambridge Analytica to do. It’s what Facebook allowed anyone to do… it’s the data-fueled online business model that Facebook helped to pioneer.” There’s nothing unusual in political campaigns using “shady tactics to try to get their message out to the most receptive audience in the most effective way they can” – what is new is the ease with which a seemingly helpful service has been repurposed to facilitate such schemes. Cambridge Analytica’s history in the Caribbean shows that our leaders are not above using data mining to further narrow political agendas. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal is a timely warning that we should do whatever we can to prevent them from being able to do so.

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