Every so often, moments come along when what seemed like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory is confirmed as true, and people are forced to say goodbye to the world they thought they lived in and adjust to the one they really lived in all along.
Widespread outrage in response to recent disclosure of new details about Cambridge Analytica has all the appearance of such a moment. These types of events have become more common recently: whether it is a new wave of terrorist attacks on European soil, preventable tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower disaster, major electoral outcomes such as the British vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory, or technology whistleblowing events such as this one, the pace at which we are continually having to re-adjust to the world we actually live in seems alarmingly high, and yet all were predictable.
No doubt, it is a dismaying picture that confronts us: British company SCL Group, operating under the brand name Cambridge Analytica with the supervision of Steve Bannon, obtained data collected from Facebook by Cambridge University academic Alexandr Kogan, and used systems built by data scientist and whistleblower-to-be Chris Wylie to train its microtargeting algorithms to nudge scores of already-angry voters towards electing Donald Trump and leaving the European Union – a set of experiments largely bankrolled by US hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, 90% owner of Cambridge Analytica.
Public reaction to this complex picture has been reminiscent of the last time there was widespread outrage about social media in political life – the revelations made by Edward Snowden in June 2013. And it’s almost uncanny timing that just as that social media-related whistleblowing scandal was made public and the world was meeting Snowden for the first time, Chris Wylie was beginning his employment with SCL Group and the next outrage was being quietly set in motion.
What many people came face to face with in that moment was that social media were not the innocent frivolity we thought they were, lest Facebook’s more-than-$100bn initial public offering on the NASDAQ hadn’t already told us this.
It turned out that some of the very same powerful entities that have long structured the world – in this case the state security agencies that underpin some of the world’s governments – were intimately connected to our innocuous social media tomfoolery. When you told Facebook you liked Ed Sheeran, or checked in to let your friends know that you were at the London Zoo penguin enclosure, GCHQ and the NSA will know as well, if they are interested. In the minds of populations across the world, social media has changed irrevocably. We are always resistant in these moments of readjustment, and this time will be no exception.
Or did it? We carried on using social media en masse – in fact our use of them increased. Writing in London Review of Books in August 2017, shortly after Facebook crossed its 2 billion user threshold, John Lanchester observed that it was not only the number of users that was increasing, but the degree of engagement: “In the far distant days of October 2012, when Facebook hit one billion users, 55 per cent of them were using it every day. At two billion, 66 per cent are.” We are always resistant in these moments of readjustment, and this time will be no exception.
The limits of consent
A common, if contrary, response from some quarters when Snowden’s leak was in the news was: why is it that we are happy for Facebook to know our whereabouts, but freak out when governments have the same information? One answer might be consent: it’s ok for Facebook to have our data precisely because we choose to give it to them, unlike with the security services. And that’s a question and answer that we might apply directly to the present case of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data.
But there’s a serious flaw in this logic. Our relationship with Facebook was never a straightforward one in which we simply entrust them with our data, and they keep it safe like some kindly uncle taking care of a bag of sweeties. If Facebook was ever that way, it was a long time ago when only a few Harvard students knew what it was, but even then Mark Zuckerberg was referring to fellow-students as “dumb fucks” for being so naïve. It is helpful to remember this naïveté now, because it is a persistent feature of social media’s power.
The Cambridge Analytica story isn’t only about social media. It’s got bribery, honey traps, corruption and many other concerning elements that long precede the anthropomorphised bunny rabbit gifs and food porn of social media. Once again, besides the shock revelation that seemingly democratic votes are vulnerable to well-organised propaganda efforts, the surprise seems to be that these more recognisable elements of white-collar deviancy have turned out to be in cahoots with the digital technologies we have come to trust, and intimately integrate into our own lives.
But what did we really think would happen when the worst aspects of Silicon Valley, a cynical Etonian establishment, reactionary Anglo-American nationalism and hedge-fund capital found each other? As Mark Fisher once said, “Many of what we call ‘conspiracies’ are the ruling class showing class solidarity.”
Perhaps a more important question to ask is: why do we carry on being shocked when social media’s centrality in our attention and emotional lives doesn’t go well for us?
For some reason, technology companies and their products are treated differently to other corporations and their products. When we deal with Coca-Cola Company, Phillip Morris or MacDonalds, we have an idea of whom we’re dealing with. At least when you’re buying a Coca-Cola you know it can melt your teeth (never mind all the other things sugar does to the body), and when you buy cigarettes that they are likely to give you lung cancer. Nobody thinks Big Macs are good for them.
The last few decades show a clear story of how we prized these facts out of the grasp of the corporations that wanted them concealed or de-emphasised, and adjusted our expectations accordingly. But somehow large numbers of people have continued to think that when they use Facebook their situation as a consumer is materially better. As Aral Balkan, Shoshanna Zuboff and others have highlighted, it isn’t better – it’s actually worse.
Facebook’s entire product is manipulation; the exploitation of its users’ emotional reactions by those with something to push. That is how it makes nearly $200k profit per quarter per employee, more than any other technology company.
When Facebook’s customers were the Coca-Colas, MacDonalds and Unilevers of the world, nobody appeared to mind as long as they could carry on mindlessly scrolling through a stream of emotionally stimulating media as a means of distracting themselves from the hopeless emptiness of Anglo-American late capitalism.
But when the inevitable happened and the same system was used to influence political change by people who had already been doing so by other means for 25 years, suddenly #DeleteFacebook is such a mainstream idea that BBC Radio 4 is asking people – ironically via its Facebook page – whether they intend carrying it out.
The Cambridge Analytica story is no more a shock than Facebook allowing its advertisers to sell things – including housing – only to white people is a shock. It’s no more a shock than the fact that according to the UN, Facebook had a “determining role” in spreading hatred against the heavily persecuted Rohingya people of Rakhine state in Myanmar either. These things are only a shock if you’re unaware of what technology, capital, and a complete lack of ethics produce when, inevitably, they combine.
When the majority isn’t right
There is one person however, who should rightly be congratulated in this moment, for whom the only shock is probably that the world finally listened: Observer reporter Carole Cadwalladr. Again and again her tenacious reporting has been the bitter pill many refused to swallow that showed the difference between the world we think we’re in, and the one we really inhabit. It is in this space that genuine democracy is most vulnerable, and yet ironically, the lesson from her reporting is that a majority of wishful thinkers are not always right.