As a long term advocate for online privacy who openly calls on people to avoid/ban the likes of Google and Facebook, I get told many things. A lot of them involve tinfoil, but the majority are replies along the lines of “you know what, I don’t really care” or “I’m just an ordinary person, what good is my data to them”. Which, of course, are answers brimming with ignorance.
Let’s take the stated goal of all the tracking done on our internet habits. Someone put it rather eloquently: the purpose of all the advertising related online tracking is to ensure that, as a whole, we spend 0.3% more of our money on shoes.
All is fair in love and war and internet advertising. We do know that, in order to get us to spend 0.3% on shoes, Facebook will use our weaknesses against us (and boast about it in front of its would be customers, which are not you & I; it’s the advertisers). And believe it or not, even the ordinary person who claims to have nothing special about them has psychological buttons that can be pressed. For a company like Facebook, with access to the personal data of a billion and a half people, including information such as how long they look at different parts of the screen and what they started typing but then regretted, the ability to identify these buttons is undeniably there. All they have to do, really, is to use their AI engines to find correlations between people using that huge pool of data at their disposal.
If you are happy to have a company like Facebook press your psychological buttons in order to make you spend money on things you don’t want or need, then, by all means, do continue using Facebook. While at it, do press on using Google, Gmail and Android phones. They are good for you.
What would you say if it turns out there is more to the cost of using Facebook and Google than the cost of 0.3% more shoes you don't need? How would you react if it turns out the likes of Facebook are responsible for the very shape of our world today, the world we live in, and not in a positive way?
According to a speculation I bumped at in The Guardian, it looks likely the Trump crew utilised advanced Facebook profiling to win the state of Pennsylvania. Their alleged approach was pure genius: they did not try to turn Democrats into Republicans; all they tried to do was ensure enough black voters, who traditionally vote for the Democrats, did not show up to vote in the first place. We do not know how much of this was actually put into use, but we do know that victory in Pennsylvania by an incredibly small margin was key to Trump’s victory despite him receiving much fewer overall votes than Clinton.
Think about it for a moment. Even if Facebook was not used by Trump to win Pennsylvania, the very fact Facebook’s facilities - the same ones that are regularly used to make you buy 0.3% more shoes - could be used to change the votes by 0.3% just as well is undeniable. Even if Facebook did not actually do it, you have to admit that Facebook has the ability to do it.
So let me ask you this, as you continue using Facebook to share cat photos: Do you really think Facebook is the right authority to have the power to determine the shape of the society we live in?
26/06/2017: I think it is important to add that part of what makes Facebook & Co's contributions to the field of advertising so combustible is the lack of publicity around it. We just don't know what it is, exactly, that Facebook is doing, and therefore we cannot confidentially say just how far it had affected the USA elections. That is entirely because the likes of Facebook and Google keep their secrets, probably because they realised years ago that if the world knew how far they go then that shroud of ignorance protecting them would disappear. Everyone, not just yours truly, would call for action to be taken against them.
02/08/2017: The Guardian published an article talking about researchers finding that Facebook's "dark ads" (the term for ads that pass under the radar and which utilise Facebook's profiling of its users) can swing political opinions.
07/09/2017: Today we received confirmation that Facebook did sell elections related ads to dodgy Russians. Thus this post, which was written as a sort of a hypothetical warning, has been elevated to the level of a working theory: the threat of obscure, big data driven, psychological games playing upon our society at large, but out of our scrutiny at the same time, has been confirmed.
12/09/2017: Today we've learned that these dodgy Facebook ads had a reach of up to 70 million Americans (read here). As a direct result, we are getting calls for Mark Zuckerberg to officially testify about this, citing that "In the past, advertising was all public."
13/09/2017: We're not done yet. Now we learn that not only did Russia use Facebook to influence American voters, they actually got these same American voters to take part in protests that it (Russia) has organised using Facebook. One wonders what those Americans that took part in these protests would think upon discovering they were used as a tool by Russia?
26/09/2017: Washington Post published on new evidence, from Facebook itself, on how Russians were buying Facebook ads (for $100,000) in order to exploit divisions in American society for the elections. For example, convince black voters not to turn up to the vote.
I think I can safely say this post has been proven right by now. I will therefore stop updating it.