Every so often, I come up with an idea which I think is worth writing about. When I do, I make a note and then come back to it when I’m ready. This one is from December, but all the hype around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica suggested it was time.
There seems to be a fair bit of traction behind the #deletefacebook movement and I find that surprising. But then, less so.
We seem to be in an age where we quickly look for someone to blame. I can relate to looking at a problem and immediately looking to identify the cause, but there’s often a wide gap between the cause of a problem and someone you can blame. In many cases, the individual being blamed, even when ‘justified’, is a symptom of a bigger problem that isn’t being acknowledged. It’s why problems usually find ways to persist when you remove the symptom.
In a world where people are quickly looking to label the bad guy, I find a lot of people blaming businesses or technology. Something something corporations are ruining the world. Something something technology is destroying humanity. I find this perspective rather challenging. As far as I know, technology and business becomes rather hollow when you remove people from the equation. In that sense, both are extensions of our own humanity. Both are tools we’ve developed over time to help us accomplish more with less. Understanding that these tools are a reflection of our own humanity, we accept that we can be capable of both good and evil. From fireworks to gunpowder, from missiles to rockets.
What I’m getting at is that if we want to move past the blame game and start looking to solve the problems we’re facing, we need to look at the people. It’s people who are behind the development of this technology. It’s people who are behind the companies like Cambridge Analytica. And it’s people who are allowing themselves to be taken advantage of by both. So it’s about time we look at the people involved.
For the most part, I place very little responsibility on the tech developers at Facebook, or anywhere else for that matter. Almost every piece of technology that’s made, is made to solve a problem. If it doesn’t solve a problem, it becomes obselete. Throughout history, people have shown a desire to be more connected with one another. Technological advancements in transportation brought us from horseback riding to hyperloops. In communication, we went from telegraphs to texting. Along the way, we realize that we didn’t have to physically be in the same place to have a social interaction with someone. To some extent, we realized that we didn’t even need the other person to be there at all. Asian Avenue, Apartment 107, Black Planet, Myspace… all pre-cursors to Facebook and show a continuum of what we were trying to accomplish. The internet gave us this great platform where we could connect digitally instead of physically, and it was a dynamic that we clearly wanted to explore. Had it not been Facebook, it would’ve been someone else. And to think that this evolution stops at Facebook would be be unwise. Social Media wasn’t a lab experiment from Silicon Valley, it was a social evolution, started by, driven by, and consumed by people. Facebook just happens to be the playground we chose to play in today.
The blade is a tool, indifferent to whether it cuts the flesh of your enemies or a dinner for your friends. It’s the person who chooses how to use the tool. Could Facebook have made it more difficult for Cambridge Analytica to do what they did? Probably. What happened to #DontBlameTheVictim? Maybe it only applies to people.. Regardless, understanding what happened at Cambridge Analytica is definitely the fun part.
Cambridge Analytica was a firm who realized that Facebook could be used as a platform for modern political propaganda and did so with a high level of efficacy. That’s it. I’m trying to see why it’s more complicated and complex than this, and I don’t think it is. Propaganda isn’t a new or foreign concept. For as long as there’s been politics, there have been people trying to manipulate the message for the sake of political gain. And America has probably used those tools more frequently and effectively than any other government in the last 100 years. How much has been used against its own citizens and how much has been used in countries abroad is anyone’s guess. But just as propaganda found its way into print media, broadcast media, and digital media, it would surely make its way into social media.
Cambridge Analytica looks like they may have been up to some other shady political tactics. If they happened, it just strengthens the case that politics desperately needs to be removed from governance. But politics is how the powerful stay in power so perhaps that’s too big of a topic to tackle here. What is worth focusing on though is what Cambridge Analytica was able to do and why they were able to do it. After having watched all the hidden camera footage from Channel 4, one thing stood out to me more than anything else – their goal of targeting people’s fears.
The only thing that Facebook really provided Cambridge Analytica with were details on the things that you liked and didn’t like. The sinister part was when they took the details of each voter profile and used them to created targeted groups based on what they were most afraid of. If you were from a southern community which had lost jobs to immigrants, it was ‘build that wall’. If you were afraid of a change in gun legislation, it was ‘Hillary will take your guns’. If you were concerned with political corruption, it was ‘drain the swamp’. Whatever you were afraid of, they would play to your fears. While most people know that making decisions from a place of fear isn’t great, not everybody knows why. Turns out it’s literally the wrong part of the brain for making these decisions. The part of the brain which governs emotions like fear, is different from the part of the brain which governs rational thought. People are navigating this propaganda in an emotional state of mind instead of a rational state of mind. Instead of being able to think critically and rationally about the content that’s in front of them, they’re thinking emotionally and looking for an enemy.
And this is where I let Cambridge Analytica off the hook. They should be held accountable for what they did, but then, we should also be held accountable for what we let them do.
The first few times I saw a juicy headline on Facebook, I definitely clicked through. Juicy headlines and misdirection have been around since well before the Facebook news feed so it’s not like I was being duped, I was just sufficiently curious. But each time was a let down. The headline was always better than the content. So I learned to stop clicking on what was eventually termed ‘click-bait’. Seemed straight forward.
Over time, digital publications like BuzzFeed and Vice started popping up on my timeline. They were far more legitimate than the click-bait articles I was used to, but something else was going on. These publications also realized they had tapped into fear. The fear of being a racist, the fear of being a sexist, the fear of being transphobic, and perhaps most importantly, the fear of being on the wrong side of a movement which seemed to be based on the virtuous pursuit of equality. Their approach was more nuanced than Cambridge Analytica. Instead of pushing raw propaganda to their audience, these digital publications started editing interviews or not properly sourcing articles, looking to craft a narrative which their audience was hungry for. They were more interested in providing a narrative which made you feel good about what you already thought. When you think you have the moral high ground, confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing.
But not everyone fell for it.
Not everyone took Jordan Peterson’s Vice interview at face value. Not everyone liked or shared memes saying ‘The South Will Rise Again’. Not everyone saw a comment section where everyone was agreeing with them and jumped right in. Not everyone avoided a perspective that challenged their own. And for those who did debate, not everyone approached it as a battle of them versus us. Some of us couldn’t help but look at it as us versus the problem.
The problem isn’t privacy. The problem isn’t Facebook. The problem isn’t even Cambridge Analytica or the shady politicians they help put in positions of power. The problem is us.
The problem is us.
When tools stop working, people stop using them. Propaganda is the tool, and it will be used as long as we keep letting it work. If we #deletefacebook, I can all but guarantee that this propaganda will follow us whichever social media channel we choose to spend those hours. If we put the team at Cambridge Analytica behind bars, I can all but guarantee that another organization will take its place. So why is our reaction still to place blame instead of facing the reality that this is about accountability.
If you think that sharing information about yourself makes you a better target for people looking to take advantage of you, welcome to the world. But there’s hope.. and perhaps things are darkest before dawn.
I’ve learned to live my life like an open book. I’ve abandoned the illusion of privacy. I understand that information is more valuable when fewer people have it, but I also understand that knowledge is most valuable when everyone has it. Digging deep on why people value privacy, it almost always comes back to a fear of what others will do with their private information. So I choose to live without a fear of what others would do if they knew everything about me.
And – it – is – glorious!
I really couldn’t care less if Facebook showed to the public: my health records, my genealogy, my personal finances, my relationship history, purchasing behaviour… all of it. To some extent, I wish they would. I would gladly take that risk to try and demonstrate that transparency isn’t itself a risk. In reality, our ability to share more information with one another has been at the core of every big leap forward our species has taken. From a spoken language, to a written language, to the printing press, to the internet. We just seem to have momentary lapses in judgement where we’re afraid of what will happen when only some of us can access that information.
We’ve now arrived at a point where between Facebook, Google, Apple and the NSA, there isn’t much that isn’t known about us. The data is already being collected and unless you’re keen to go live off the grid, it won’t stop. Who gets access to that data is largely out of our control. There will always be bad actors with innovative ideas on how to abuse that dynamic… which means we either have to accept that we’re screwed, or find a way to rise above it. I choose to rise above it.
My choice is that when someone takes the time to learn about me, and to use that information to take advantage of me, I’m prepared. Not only am I prepared to be critical of the information I’m being presented with, I’m also prepared to be critical of my own actions if I allow myself to be misled. It’s not always easy and I’m not always perfect, but when you let go of right and wrong and prioritize the truth, seeing through the noise becomes much easier.
I think that everyone’s life will be impeded by dishonesty and misdirection at some point, but I think it’s worth considering that it’s our tendency to be dishonest with ourselves which impedes our progress most. A fear of how others might perceive us and how that might impact our lives. But what happens when we let that fear guide us? What happens when everyone had the ability to project to the world what they thought the world wanted of us? Social Media gave us that ability and we’ve used it to create noise. It’s a feedback loop of confusion where people struggle to understand the disconnect between how we present ourselves and who we really are. And the closer we get to facing the truth, the louder we yell ‘Privacy!’
Or we could just let go. When I imagine a world that has abandoned the premise of privacy, I see a world which has embraced the value of transparency. I see a world that has truly realized the value of honesty. A world where every piece of information is always available to every person. I can’t help but think about that being the ultimate equalizer.