A few days ago, I came across a picture, courtesy NDTV, of a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protest somewhere in a metropolis of privilege, where we have a tiger carrying a sign that says “eating meat contributes to species extinction”. Before I could wrap my head around the irony of that image, I see, floating on my Facebook news feed, #DeleteFacebook, yes on my Facebook feed, people using Facebook asking people not to use Facebook, and suddenly there is too much irony in my life.
Now of course, all this talk of boycotting Facebook comes from the whole Cambridge Analytica (CA) revelations, CA being a data analytics company that allegedly “illegitimately” used data scraped off from Facebook users to microtarget key demographics in the US (United States) elections.
I am sorry, but what part of the recent “scandal” about Cambridge Analytica is the scandal? That Facebook sells your data? I am sorry, but have you not heard of the first commandment of modern business—that if you do not pay for a product, you are the product?
Who do you think pays for Facebook’s valuation, their stock prices, and the salary of that friend you are jealous about because he works for Facebook?
You ! Your data, your preferences. That is where Facebook’s core value proposition is, the ability to provide “hooks” for analytics engines, of course if you cross Facebook’s palms with silver.
Surely, you cannot expect them to provide you with a platform for sharing your brain-droppings, totally gratis, now do you?
This is Facebook we are talking about. Not NREGA.
But privacy settings, you say. Privacy settings… yes, so what? In case you haven’t figured this out, the privacy settings on Facebook exist to protect your data from other users, like your ex sneaking through your album, or those that haven’t paid the ticketmaster from getting a free “dekho”.
Privacy settings, and repeat after me, do not exist to protect you from Facebook. I know Facebook says otherwise, but bear with me.
And here is the thing. If you really cared for privacy of your opinions, you would not be on Facebook in the first place, desperately fishing for “likes” and “shares”. As a matter of fact, the reason why you are on social media is because you want the publicity, for what you think, for how happy your life is, which airport lounge you are currently checked in to, because you want your cousin to know you are flying business class, and for people to know what political figure in history you are, even though that questionnaire you went through is pretty plainly eliciting your politics, in an analysis-friendly way.
Okay, but personal data? You don’t really care for that either. You will pretty happily part with your address, phone number, email, and the circumference of the mole on your left shoulder for a store loyalty card, platinum-level please, that promises 5 per cent discount on purchases above Rs 10,000 and parking validation. You will happily post your vacation pictures while you are on vacation, telling every burglar on social media that your house is currently unoccupied. Your shock and condemnation are only when you find people actually using that data, either by sending you a customised “Buy this” or “Vote for this” or by breaking into your house.
No, no, the problem is, the way Cambridge Analytica used that data, to give us Donald Trump. Well, first of all, welcome to the world of statistics. It used to be unsexy when I was growing up, Goongupta Das Gupta statistics book being even less popular than Poonam Dasgupta, but now with massive computational power, algorithm parallelisation, and the rebranding of statistics as “Big Data”, this is all back in fashion, and Cambridge Analytica is just one in a long line of companies that are selling analytics services, and there really is not much of a difference between selling you Cheetos and selling you a guy who looks like Cheetos.
And here is the bigger thing. It is not even clear that such microtargeting works, in a statistically significant way, in the field of political science, in this specific case whether Trump or whoever else hired CA, *actually* obtained any insights from their analytics that they would not have obtained elsewhere, for example through voter lists or door-to-door canvassing. There is a lot of literature, written by academics in history and political science, immensely sceptical of the ability of such analytics to find “Oh, my God, I never thought of that before” insights when it comes to political behaviour. By thinking of the quants at Cambridge Analytica as voodoo doctors who can alter elections by changing a configuration file, the only narrative you end up strengthening is that of Cambridge Analytica itself, and when I said I was drowning in irony, I was not kidding, because every hate post about Cambridge Analytica is an advertisement for them, and their ilk, and every overstatement about the power of the data Facebook owns, makes them stronger than they are.
So best of luck, #DeleteFacebook. And well done.
Now, sensationalism in science reporting is not new; I mean, without the sensation, you get research papers, and who reads those? But some of the moral indignation here stems from an insecurity in the mainstream corporate media, at the possibility of them losing their role as the primary influencer of customer behaviour, both in terms of buying products and voting for candidates. What a nightmare it would be if a data owner (Facebook), a data analyser (Cambridge Analytica), and a targeter (the guy selling the product) short-circuited them out of the business they have had for hundreds of years.
Of course, much of the fear is unfounded, which is why Fox News and Republic TV and The Wire and The Hindu still exist, but not all of it is blind panic, because change has already started happening, as media platforms, both generic (e.g. Facebook) or specific (e.g. Breitbart) provide greater targeting capabilities than conventional TV or page views, not that we are, I repeat, in the mind-control apocalypse that many claim we already are in. And won’t be in, any time soon.
Putting it all together, targeting-at-scale is not black magic, and companies like Cambridge Analytica haven’t suddenly gotten their hands on The Half Blood Prince’s secret spell book, no matter how much they would like you to believe they have. Now intelligence that alters elections may still be provided through hacked emails and other privileged communications, but now we are moving away from the supposed civilisational crisis posed by Big Data, machine learning, or Facebook into the domain of profiting from pure criminal activity, which is as old as humankind itself.
So, please let us not panic, let us not delete Facebook, and let us obey the signs in the picture at the top, and vow not to eat zebra, tiger, or giraffe meat.
This piece was first published on the writer’s blog and has been republished here with permission.
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