MARCH 23 — The furore surrounding Cambridge Analytica makes it seem as if the British data analytics firm eats babies for breakfast.
A company, Global Science Research (GSR), took data from Facebook users who did a personality quiz on its app, as well as data from those users’ Facebook friends (through a friends permission feature that was available then before Facebook disabled it in mid-2014), which allowed it to have information on more than 50 million Facebook users.
The test-takers had reportedly agreed to their data being collected for academic use, but their Facebook friends were unaware that their information too had been harvested.
GSR allegedly sold the data to Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica then allegedly used the Facebook data to create an algorithm to come up with convincing political messages for voters, which a whistleblower had described as “models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons”. Talk about dramatic.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has reached Malaysia too, as both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) accuse each other of contracting the company’s services during the 13th general election.
Cambridge Analytica’s website said it had supported the Kedah BN campaign in Election 2013 with a “targeted messaging campaign” that highlighted school improvements.
The Prime Minister’s Office claimed neither BN nor the government had ever hired Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL Group, pointing to an SCL representative who said he reported “directly” to Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir. Mukhriz was with Umno back then in 2013 and became Kedah mentri besar after the election.
SCL Group South-east Asia chief Azrin Zizal, who was Mukhriz’s former media officer, mirrored the official narrative, even though Mukhriz had contested Election 2013 as an Umno candidate, not an independent. Why is it such a big deal for a company to try to figure out what makes people tick and to sell its insights to politicians?
Claims that Cambridge Analytica can read people’s minds or brainwash them are probably over-the-top embellishments of its capabilities.
Sure it can test political catchphrases like “drain the swamp” and predict their popularity for use in an actual campaign. But how is that any different from other companies holding focus groups to test their products?
There appears to be two factors behind the public outrage: Facebook’s use of our personal data and the spread of fake news on social media.
It makes no sense for people to be angry at Facebook, a free service, for allowing third parties access to their data for commercial reasons. (Facebook has since tightened its privacy controls).
How can we demand for free things and expect a business to magically sustain itself? It is like asking for quality journalism, but refusing to pay for it and complaining about the state of the press.
If we want to be able to contact a long-lost school friend or to leave mean comments on a Facebook post we find offensive, then we must be willing to pay the price, i.e. give away our data.
It is absurd to expect privacy for anything we post online. If we really want to safeguard our data, then we just have to go off the grid.
On the use of disinformation in political campaigns, Facebook, as a platform, should not be held responsible for the spread of fake news or any sort of content that is considered offensive. It is content creators who should have primary responsibility.
Why are we blaming Facebook for showing us only content that we like? If we want to know both sides of the story, then all we have to do is follow the Facebook pages of personalities or organisations we abhor.
If we are upset at Cambridge Analytica for supposedly exploiting our trust of our own friends above other institutions when it comes to information, then we need to get a reality check.
Our friends and acquaintances have their own biases and prejudices; some are also more susceptible to sharing social media posts without doing some quick verification on Google first.
We need to start taking some responsibility for ourselves instead of blaming tech companies for creating an echo chamber that we willingly are part of.
It is not that difficult to look for alternative viewpoints or news sources. It doesn’t take all that much time either to Google something to check if it is old news or a hoax, instead of mindlessly forwarding it to a dozen WhatsApp groups.
Instead of demanding for more regulation that could destroy Facebook’s great democratic openness, we should become smarter consumers.
In the interest of free speech, people should be able to say whatever they want, including racist and sexist things, as long as physical harm is not advocated.
If a campaign spreads a video claiming that a political party wants to get rid of so-called Malay rights or that another party is corrupt to the core, the targets just need to explain why such claims are wrong.
It may be simplistic to expect people to have common sense and to not fall for racist campaigning or fear mongering, but I believe that we need to trust our own ability to self-regulate instead of asking the State to control us.