A few days ago, I came across a picture courtesy NDTV, of a PETA 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 to not use Facebook, and suddenly there is too much iron in my life.
Now of course all this talk of boycotting Facebook comes from the whole Cambridge Analytica revelations, CA being a data analytics company that allegedly “illegitimately” used data scraped off from Facebook users to micro-target key demographics in the US 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 in 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 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 havent 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 havent 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, and for people to know what political figure in history are you, 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% 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 is only when you find people actually using that data, either by sending you customized “Buy this” or “Vote for this” or by breaking in to 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 parallelization, 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 which are selling analytics services, and there really is nothing much different 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 skeptical of the ability of such analytics to find “Oh my God I never thought of that before” insights when it comes to political behavior. 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 behavior, both in terms of buying products and voting for candidates. What a nightmare would it be if a data owner (Facebook), a data analyzer (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 pageviews, 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, targetting-at-scale is not black magic, and companies like Cambridge Analytica havent 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 civilizational 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.