Big Data is Watching You

How Cambridge Analytica and Facebook manipulated the private data of millions of citizens to aid large-scale political campaigns, from the US Presidential Election to Brexit.

Yuval Noah Harari was on to something when he said “Big Data is Watching You.”

With the overwhelming amounts of personal data that social media platforms hold over individuals, it’s no secret that tech giants are enabling advertisers to curate more and more specific ads to consumers across the globe. But could what started out as a clever (although intrusive) marketing strategy lend itself to the hands of political parties to manipulate millions of people when making critical democratic decisions?

Although data analysis and ad-curation can seem innocuous, when we considerthe team of expert behavioural psychologists and the heavy targeting tools that are being used to create certain ads, the average Facebook user, in reality, is susceptible to forms of subliminal manipulation that could actually change their political views on false premises. This means that advertising bodies could be disseminating false information or political propaganda so subtly that you may never realise that an external body has been goading you to pick one candidate over another in a presidential election. The newly released whistle-blowing documentary “The Great Hack” delves into the partnership of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and how the they manipulated the private data of millions of citizens to aid large-scale political campaigns, including the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

With the release of “The Great Hack,” we have come to learn that this political manipulation extended beyond the US and UK, even to nations like Trinidad and Tobago. With the Trinidadian government split between its Indian and African political bodies, Cambridge Analytica employed a new tactic to target the youth of Trinidad to increase apathy among young African voters, leading the Indian children to do the opposite (arrive at the polls on election day to vote for the Indians.) 

 

CA (Cambridge Analytica) invented the “Do So” campaign, which seemed like an exciting movement for African teens to reject the previous government by not taking part in the elections. This “fun” campaigning and the apathy of African youngsters led to Indian victory, solely thanks to the propaganda campaign orchestrated by CA.

 

In spite of the allegations that began in 2015, accusing CA of its misuse of data, both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica refused to admit to any breach of privacy. In March 2018, whistleblower Christopher Wylie (former Cambridge Analytica employee) came forward to corroborate the allegations, which led to the dismemberment of the company. With Wylie coming forward and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Observer releasing scathing exposés about the truth behind Cambridge Analytica’s mass manipulation, Facebook was fined USD 5 billion and CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced the grilling of the United States Congress (according to the Washington Post).

Former senior director of Cambridge Analytica Brittany Kaiser, who took part in “The Great Hack” documentary has also come forward to provide evidence to company’s malpractice, although several wonder why she chose to come forward after the scandal became front-page news instead of earlier on, while the company was in the midst of manipulating hundreds of millions of people. With Kaiser and others remaining apathetic to the exploitation that took place during the election of US President Donald Trump, the political climate of the entire world has taken a turn since 2016.

Although Cambridge Analytica has been dismembered, there are organisations with similar manipulating powers that remain intact and can still partner with political bodies to orchestrate similar wide-scale exploitation, which has sparked the notion that “data rights are legal rights.” According to the CNET, US Senator Dianne Feinsteib’s latest bill will seek to prevent another mishap like the Cambridge Analytica scandal with a set of five basic rights for voters, including: “the right to be notified when campaigns obtain their data,” to inhibit further selling of this data, and the right to review all data collected by political bodies demand its deletion. Voters will also be able to deny Google and Facebook permission to use their data to aid political campaigns.

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