Cambridge Analytica: A Brief Guide.
In the past few days, Cambridge Analytica has popped in almost all of our news feeds with links on how it has effected various elections across the globe by mining voter data. I will try my best to explain how everything happened, who did it and how much did they intrude into our lives.
How did they get the data?
Have you ever hit the Login with Facebook option when you are asked to login to a new website? Using this option gives the app developer to access your Facebook data for their own use. The problem started when as part of the Facebook terms of service, Apps were allowed to access data of the authorizer’s friends as well. So for example, if you used the Login with Facebook option, you inadvertently allowed some apps to access yours and your friends’ data. This has been accepted by Facebook as a weakness of its policy and was changed a while back.
The major problem for Facebook and us started when an app developer who had been given access to data of about 50 million profiles also shared this data with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook says this was against its policy but the blame of having such lax terms of service falls ultimately on Zuckerberg’s shoulders.
Sharing data with apps is not something new for Facebook. It is how they make most of their money. Your data is not “sold” per se, but it is allowed access to depending on the fee that an app developer offers. So technically, your data is auctioned off.
Why you should care about leakage of your data?
A common question asked by the common people is why you should care about some big company having your data, the data of a small insignificant member. The problem is that your data, individually, carries little value. When this data is collected for a group of people, it becomes useful. Patterns start emerging and you can deduct the likes and dislikes of a group towards basically anything. These opinions range from political affiliations, food preferences all the way to the brand of your toothpaste. Facebook also collects info on when you log in to facebook, how long you spend on a post and which post you engage more in.
This leads to the formation of your profile on a database which can then be used to manipulate you. Facebook openly admits that it shows you posts which are similar to the ones you have previously liked or commented on. This has lead to the formation of echo chambers for all ideologies which also perpetuate fake and misleading news among themselves. This explains how fake news manages to spread so far.
How were people manipulated?
Let us start with USA, Cambridge Analytica has shared how it managed to ‘influence’ the swing voters and pushed them to voting for Donald Trump. They came up with catchy phrases and built up the hysteria surrounding Trump. The result is for all of us to see as Donald Trump now holds the most powerful post in the world.
Cambridge Analytica also carried out telephone surveys and interviews to gain more information on the mindset of an average voter. The same policy was also used in 2013 Kenyan elections and the Bihar State Assembly elections in 2010.
Cambridge Analytica and India.
A subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica in India has admitted to having the Congress, BJP, Janata Dal (United), ICICI Bank and Airtel as its clients. When the news about Cambridge Analytica blew up, both the major parties started a slugfest, both accusing the other of using the shady services. Let us look at the evidence that exists as of now.
The Congress was said to have intentions of using Cambridge Analytica for 2019 elections and to remake Rahul Gandhi’s image (like that would make him less of a joke). The BJP on the other hand is said to have benefitted from Cambridge Analytica’s services in the 2010-2014 period.
The official website of Cambridge Analytica used the case study of the 2010 Bihar elections where CA “won 90% of the seats targeted by CA”. In that election JDU and BJP emerged as the biggest parties which has fuelled the theories of BJP using CA. Also, the Call to Volunteer service used by BJP before the 2014 elections is something eerily similar to what was used in US elections. The numbers were used to carry out telephone surveys to get into the mind of the voter.
Although there is no concrete evidence of the same, so you may dismiss this as mere speculation and it would be a fair assessment.
In my personal opinion, the debate here is about where the line between persuasion and manipulation is drawn. The Cambridge Analytica debate has brought the issue back on the fore front. There are also some myths which say that there is a “list” which shows that individuals have been paid money privately to spread agenda against a political party. I don’t really understand where this comes from. The only money paid here was paid to the company i.e. Facebook and no individuals were used to spread any propaganda. There is no “list” of people who had been paid. This might have been because of confusion between the Panama Paper leak and this leak.
I hope this ends up being a moment of clarity for the masses where they realize how social media is being used by political parties to spread hatred or misinformation against the other party. This is psychological warfare. An army is being raised by parties without the soldiers knowing who they are fighting for. This is what modern warfare would look like. People are turned on people without them even knowing why it is so.
This is also unfortunately, probably the first example of foreign powers being used to manipulate elections on Indian soil. Something our MPs have legalized under the new FCRA, 2018. The act legalizes foreign funding for political parties. This would leave the door open for communist parties to rise to power using funds from China or for foreign governments to back a party which would be more favorable to them. The implications of this act are scary and the silence on it from the general public is haunting.
I hope this makes us also question all the information we consume regularly. I hope this makes us actively look for the other side of the coin and the arguments of the perceived opposition. There is a scant chance that it will lead to people using arguments instead of labels in a debate and it makes us see the world in contours of grey rather than in black and white
Here is to hoping that this leads to a more enlightened and smarter global population.