Facebook: is the party over?

BY RAJEESH KUMAR| IN Digital Media | 22/03/2018
The Cambridge Analytica controversy should make us all think more critically about Facebook and what it does
RAJEESH KUMAR T V explains how academics can help

 

Ever since social networking sites took centre stage in academic and social discourses, academia has been engaged in the herculean task of explaining the nature of a digital life. While these philosophical discourses still find it difficult to reach a consensus, Cambridge Analytica, a so-called data analytic company, has suddenly made it very easy to explain what this is.

Started in 2013, in just a few years, the company has come up with a ‘concrete answer’ for this dilemma: based on its shrewd data mining business, with the ‘authorization’ of Facebook, it seems a digital life is all about manipulated psyches, entrapment, and fake news.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are in the eye of a media storm. Facebook is alleged to have given away the personal data of millions to the British-owned company Cambridge Analytica. The news of this shocking and unprecedented privacy breach came to light through the interventions of The New York Times, The Observer, and Channel 4.

"Then it started mining data from Facebook using an application called ‘This is your digital life’ designed by Cambridge University academic Dr. Aleksandr Kogan"

 

The exclusive reports of The New York Times and The Observer claimed that the data was harvested by Cambridge Analytica without Facebook’s knowledge. The revelation has invited the attention of governments, academicians, and policymakers and prompted some serious deliberation on what to do about opaque social networking sites.

 

‘This is your digital life’

On March 17, The New York Times came up with a comprehensive article explaining how Trump and his consultants exploited Facebook Data of millions to make electoral gains. The article says that Cambridge Analytica received US$15 billion from Stephen K. Bannon, a Trump supporter, former White House strategist, and financial donor of the Republicans, to develop a tool to identify American voters and influence their psychology.

Though the company came up with the desired tool, they were forced to keep it in limbo as there was no data to make it work. Then it started mining data from Facebook using an application called ‘This is your digital life’ designed by Cambridge University academic Dr. Aleksandr Kogan.

The application, which invited Facebook users to find out their personality type, was used by 270,000 users and all their data was shamelessly accessed. Cambridge Analytica also used the public data of the friends of these 270,000 users which accounts for the personal data of about 50 million Facebook users.

Citing The Observer’s report, its sister paper, The Guardian, quotes one of the whistleblowers, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company built on”. 

The Guardian took a further step and argued that though Facebook knew of the data mining in 2015, it miserably failed to alert its users and hardly took any steps to recovering and securing the data. Facebook has denied authorizing the data mining and blamed Cambridge Analytica and Aleksandr Kogan for cheating it.  

While Facebook and Cambridge Analytica indulge in a blame game, the data of millions of Facebook users has been shamelessly exploited by a third party application and used for electoral gains.

 

From liberator to traitor

Social networking sites have been cross-hatched with the day-to-day life of billions across the world in such a way that a demarcation between offline and online life is impossible to a great extent. Facebook, as one of the major trend setters in the arena, has been enjoying a largely  unopposed rise, with immense applause from politicians, policy makers, and the public.  

"Facebook has denied authorizing the data mining and blamed Cambridge Analytica and Aleksandr Kogan for cheating it"

 

While the Cambridge Analytica controversy raises many questions, it also forces academia to pay more attention to the political economy studies of new media platforms and their ramifications on the privacy of users – in contrast to the common narrative that describes social media as ‘liberators’ of information from traditional hierarchies. It is now time to expand the scope of studies to different socio-political and cultural contexts.

Facebook’s policies pertaining to third party applications have been criticized for many reasons by researchers and experts. Facebook says that third party applications are allowed to collect data for improving the user experience. Though the company has restricted these applications from using the data for commercial or advertising purposes, it has been widely misused by many applications, and ‘This is Your Digital Life’ is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Analysing third party applications, Heather Lipford (2009) observed that, since they operate  within the Facebook boundary, users get the feeling that they are interacting through Facebook with their friends. This secure feeling blurs the reality that the users of these applications are interacting with unknown developers/servers of such applications.

Brian A. Brown, the communication faculty at the University of Windsor, argues that privacy and social networking sites are conceptually oxymoronic in that “the adherence to the principles of the former would render pointless the purpose and functionality of the latter”.

According to Brown, since social networking sites are basically built around the profit motive, none of them ensure privacy. If he is right, there is no reason to be shocked about what Cambridge Analytica did.

The academic enquiries of scholars such as Christian Fuchs and Tiziana Terranova explain how the corporations that own networking platforms exploit the digital/free labour of its users. Taking inspiration from Dallas Smyth’s concept of audience commodity, Fuchs explains how social media users and their activities become commodities that are eventually sold to advertisers or other agents.

Terranova describes the social media activities of users as free labour which is “happily given” and “shamelessly exploited” by the corporates. The framework provided by these studies helps explain how Facebook and other social networking sites brazenly sell users’ data and escape any liabilities related to privacy.

Although this framework might not totally explain the current controversy over Cambridge Analytica, it helps us to think beyond the popular narrative which posits social networking sites as ‘liberators’. As Bertolt Brecht said:

“In the dark times will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times”.

 

Rajeesh Kumar T V is a Junior Research Fellow, Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University. Email: rajeeshkumar.t.v@gmail.com

 

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