By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
There is a touch of irony that the first sign of an apology from Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for one of the worst breaches of privacy in the short history of social media, was posted on his Facebook account. One wonders if the diligent data collectors of FB are going to gather information on who has posted, how many have posted and what kind of emojis have been displayed in reaction to Zuckerberg’s apology. And when they have done so, who are they are going to share this information with?
CEOs rarely apologize, and when they do so it is more due to signals sent from the stock market or their lawyers. In FB’s case, billions of dollars were wiped off the company’s value and its top man’s personal wealth. It is a sign of the times that even humble pies are first eaten on the very social media platforms that have cooked up the mess in the first place — not in front of real people. However, it was just a matter of time before elected bodies and the media began to ask Zuckerberg some tough questions and demand he answer these in person.
Manners aside, the scandal of data harvesting can, at best, be described as negligence and insensitivity to any modicum of privacy. At worst it is a cynical exploitation and betrayal of social media consumers’ trust for the sake of quick and easy profits and political influence. It is more stealing than harvesting. People unknowingly become political puppets, their strings pulled unscrupulously by the master manipulators of social media.
The current crisis originated in Facebook allowing third-party researchers to extract personal data on the activity of users and their FB friends. Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy in the service of right-wing politicians and causes, allegedly took advantage of it for political and commercial ends, extracting information on more than 50 million individuals without their knowledge or consent.
In his defense, Zuckerberg should get the thumbs up for admitting: “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
But the only conclusion to be drawn from the Cambridge Analytica affair is that FB certainly doesn’t deserve our trust, at least not for now. The damage caused is immeasurable, and in some cases irreversible, both in terms of the more abstract values on which society is founded, such as trust, privacy and confidentiality, but also in concrete terms. How can we now be sure that two of the most momentous events of the last two years — the Brexit referendum and the election of President Donald Trump — were a genuine reflection of the will of the people rather than the result of cynical manipulation by social media? If the latter is the case, what FB and Cambridge Analytica did, by neglect or by conspiracy, was not just a benign case of overzealous public relations, but a deliberate attempt to undermine the very foundations of the democratic process. It created an uneven playing field whereby the schemers and the greedy distorted processes that otherwise would have very likely ended with the UK remaining in the European Union and Hillary Clinton occupying the White House. Just imagine.
And, before anyone screams that all elections and referendum campaigns are based on propaganda and to that extent are a misrepresentation of what the candidates really stand for, yes there is an element of truth in that, but what data harvesting does is entirely different. It is subliminal by nature, the true identity of those behind it is unknown, and those on the receiving end are unaware that that they have been spied upon, have been fed with information based on data collected on them regarding their particular attitudes, habits and lifestyles, and thus been victims of attempts to manipulate their behavior. This is not political persuasion, but playing mind games on innocent people, and it has far-reaching social and political consequences.
To save our societies from being turned into cyberspace dictatorships, there must be a power shift from the unelected social media thought police back to the social media users. This can only be done by tightening regulations and raising awareness. There is, of course, the opposite danger of governments exploiting the current crisis in order to monitor those who collect information, pretending by doing so to protect the privacy of individuals and groups, while disguising their own massive data collection operations.
Increasingly we are living in a surveillance society controlled by the Microsofts, Googles, Apples, Amazons, Facebooks and WhatsApps of this world. Any search on the internet for any goods or services prompts a deluge of adverts on our computers, tablets and mobile phones. As we sit in a restaurant, bar or cafe, we are located by our mobile phone’s GPS and confronted by a request to review the place. Big Brother is watching us everywhere and all the time in an attempt to thereby accumulate wealth, political power, and often both.
Citizens and civil society are caught between these gigantic powers and can and should push back by changing their newly acquired habits of using social media and their consumer behavior, or even discarding them altogether. At some point it will be high noon for the duel between, on the one hand, the convenience and entertainment of all these new technologies, and on the other the safeguarding of our values of privacy and of our desire for a genuine debate on our social issues instead of a manipulated one. If the battle lines between the two were somewhat murky before the Cambridge Analytica-FB scandal, they are now as clear as daylight.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg