Reflections on Cambridge Analytica, #DeleteFacebook et al

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for these past few months (and honestly, if you have, I am not judging), you’ll have heard of Cambridge Analytica . These revelations struck a chord with the research we have been conducting over the past few months here at Object-Oriented Subject.
What Cambridge Analytica allegedly did was to turn, through algorithmic processing, data harvested from Facebook via an app developed by Aleksandr Kogan into actionable insights about users’ personality traits. These insights were then deployed in order to more efficiently target political messages in support of Trump. According to The Guardian’s article by Carole Cadwalladr, whistleblower Wylie “came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles”. However, these are precisely the same practices underlying Facebook’s business model. There’s even dedicated Facebook tools and pages to help politicians connect with their constituents. And yes, these tools include, as for all other advertisers, the possibility to target political messages based on pre-processed audiences. Regardless of the political inclinations of these campaigns, targeted political ads are nothing new within this context. The difference lies in the fact that, in this case, it is Facebook, and not some third-party corporate henchman, that has the access to the vast wealth of data all of its users contribute (whether explicitly or implicitly) to its platform. Data which it then algorithmically processes into actionable target audiences that advertisers can select.

That in this case the company crunching the illegally obtained data was Cambridge Analytica, and with the end goal of stimulating vote in an overtly racist and misogynist right-wing demagogue, and not Facebook, seems to have been the tipping point where people started questioning the extent to which these vast amounts of extracted personal data could be used to directly affect their lives. However, a lot of the mainstream media coverage of the issue focused on Cambridge Analytica’s actions in isolation, portraying it as a wild card bad actor, with Facebook’s attempt to save face consisting in representing itself as an apologetic victim of this whole ordeal.

Despite being mostly framed as an isolated data abuse, thus obscuring the context and the similar realities of the processes that make Facebook (and other such services) a possibility, the Cambridge Analytica revelations have served its purpose of calling public attention to the problems and consequences of relinquishing so much control over our personal data to centralized, big tech monopolies. Hopefully it would also spark a desire for alternative digital and non-digital economies where we wouldn’t have to be so paranoid about protecting our data from power-hungry capital in the first place, but little steps are better than none.

Of course we can argue endlessly about consent and the intentions of the involved actors. However, Cambridge Analytica or no Cambridge Analytica, there’s not one but plenty of actors whose business models, being similar to that of Facebook’s, necessarily require its users to cede control over which data is collected, used and processed, for whatever and whomever agendas. Providing paid access to actionable audiences and insights achieved through massive scale operations of data processing and analysis is how these big tech companies are able to operate free of charge and still achieve profits of $40 billion (2017) in the case of Facebook, and $110 billion (2017) in the case of Google.

In the end, it becomes necessary to question the oft-times used, and most times misleading, duality of “bad” vs “good” actors when it comes to analysing the free market playing field. Case in point, no matter how much Zuckerberg claimed during his two hearings that all his algorithmic governance endeavours are to better serve the users of his platform, in the end, as it should be obvious, Facebook’s financial survival will be prioritized over the user’s experience and interests, as a long history of apologies will serve to illustrate.

#DeleteFacebook

The most popular response to the whole ordeal, #DeleteFacebook, served as a proof of the loss of confidence suffered by the platform, despite mainstream media coverage of the case focusing more on Cambridge Analytica’s actions than on Facebook’s corporate practices. This response should be viewed positively; it represents a partial and, in some more informed cases, outright rejection of the abusive practices Facebook subjects its users to.

Nonetheless, I have a couple of points to raise on some accounts. However important this type of reaction is, it should be viewed as a first step, not the final solution. And herein resides my first reservation: how many of the adherents of this campaign are labouring under the impression that deleting Facebook will magically solve the whole problem? My argument here, and I cannot stress this enough, is not that everything should (or could) be solved all at once and any in-between steps should be disregarded, lest they are not radical enough. My point concerns itself with an urgent need for awareness campaigning alongside such attempts: a movement aimed at spreading and making accessible the vital information that like Facebook, there’s many, many more: Google, Amazon, eBay, Oracle, Cisco, Netflix, Spotify, etc. It’s how platform capitalism operates, and not just ‘digitally’ (however falsely immaterial this concept might prove).  It is a pervasive reality that we can’t escape if we rest after deleting only one of its players.

My second point of concern addresses privilege and network effects: because a certain degree of privilege is indeed required in order to leave Facebook cold-turkey. For a lot of us, who belong and live under the conditions of what Silvio Lorusso terms The Entreprecariat, and thus being under constant pressure to connect, network, and market ourselves, these platforms are, regretfully, one of the best available options. Leaving would mean, quite tragically, missing out on a big part of the small pool of available opportunity. And this is just one of many examples.

Notwithstanding these reservations, we shouldn’t accept present conditions as defeat or as immutable reality. While keeping a realistic overview of the difficulties presented by issues such as usefulness, privilege and network effects, and strategising accordingly, we should be instigated to research and improve on new and existing alternatives. Indeed, I would even argue it is vital for such efforts to really understand and come to grips with what it is that makes these platforms so strong. Only then will we have a chance at counteracting their power.

Quoting economist Albert O. Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”, Michael Seemann traces a parallel between 1970’s companies, clubs and political parties and current day corporate platforms such as Facebook. Within the context of the former, abandonment could signify loss of employment, access and political agency. Within the context of the latter, argues Seemann, this is also valid, as the “cost of leaving a platform is largely determined by the strength of its network effects”. Seemann goes on to argue that ‘voice’ is, in these cases, a more political option than ‘exit’. I would however point out that in this case, in my understanding, ‘voice’ will do nothing or very little to meaningfully change a private company whose business model depends on the number of its active users. It might slightly improve the users’ conditions under current modes of accumulation, but it won’t go further than that; as such, it will be useful only as a transitory step, a valuable tool in the service of opening up and spreading the debate, thus paving the way for more radical approaches. Individual ‘exit’ won’t contribute much either, unless collectively organized and alongside an informed and active movement towards alternative, open-source and federated social networking paradigms.

To follow the Homebrew Server Club’s strategy, laid out on their Pervasive Labour Union’s special issue on XMPP,  a premium should be put on alternative approaches, not on any alternative specific apps. We need federated social networking solutions based on open standards that are able to communicate among themselves, regardless of the provider being used. I recommend the reading of the issue in order to get a grounded understanding of the possibilities offered by federation; using the example of XMPP,  ‘an instant messaging communication protocol designed as an open standard’, the issue provides a hands-on guide to install your own XMPP server and clients.

Another good resource is this article by Sean Tilley, which provides a good source on currently existing alternatives that were/are being developed with open-source and federated inter-communicability principles in mind: https://medium.com/we-distribute/a-quick-guide-to-the-free-network-c069309f334

To conclude this post, I will stress my agreement with Michael Seemann’s observation that, while these alternatives might thrive, centralized, closed source monopolies will still be the rule, not the exception, as long as we are living under capitalist conditions. “They are not going away, because their investment facilities are still greater, their scaling effects stronger, and their innovation and development cycles shorter than what can presently be achieved with common standards and open source”¹. This, however, shouldn’t be a reason for us to lower our arms, but precisely the opposite.

 

¹ Seemann, M., 2014. Digital Tailspin: Ten Rules for the Internet After Snowden. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

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