Facebook scandal: the pot calling the kettle black?


BY PETER EWART

There is a lot of political hypocrisy flying around these days reminding us of the old saying: “the pot calling the kettle black.”

For example, by now, many Canadians and Americans are aware of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal in which personal data on 50 million Americans on Facebook was shared with the Trump presidential campaign and utilized in the Republican primary.  This was done without the consent of these millions of individuals and constitutes a gross violation of privacy, as well cynical political manipulation.

As a result, not a few Democratic Party politicians and big media pundits have gotten on their high horse denouncing this collaboration between the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica.

What they fail to mention is that the Obama presidential campaign in 2012 also violated the privacy of Americans in a similar way using Facebook and was guilty of the same kind of political manipulation.  Instead, of being denounced back then, Obama’s data analytics researchers were praised as “digital masterminds” and their “unorthodox” approaches lauded.

Carol Davidsen, former Director of Media Analytics for Obama, has commented about how Facebook allowed the Obama campaign to “suck up” all kinds of personal information and also noted that the Facebook personnel “were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

However, one difference was that Cambridge Analytica did not ask permission of any of the 50 million Facebook users, while Obama’s campaign did ask some users, but not all.  The Obama campaign started with a list of about a million people who had signed into the campaign website through Facebook.  These people were then asked through a Facebook prompt if they would “grant the campaign permission to scan their Facebook friends lists, their photos and other personal information” (1).

In addition, users were asked if they would allow access to their Facebook news feeds, which gave the Obama campaign access “to millions of names and faces they could match against their lists of persuadable voters, potential donors, unregistered voters and so on.”

So, indeed, while the million users consented, the tens of millions of the users’ “friends” did not and, as a result, had their private information mined and harvested in a bid by the Obama campaign to sway their vote.

In another example of the pot calling the kettle black, we have certain political parties in the Canadian parliament warning of possible “foreign interference” in the upcoming federal election, i.e. Russia.  Yet a number of these parties routinely contract the services of foreign consulting firms who roam the globe like modern day pirates, advising political parties on the latest “clean” and “dirty” tricks to utilize against their rivals and on the public in Canada, U.S. and other countries, including “attack ads”, microtargeting techniques, the use of “botnets” to create false impressions of public support, and other invasive and manipulative tactics.

In addition, certain parties in Parliament are gathering “big data” personal information from digital sources all the time with the aim of microtargeting voters with “wedge politics”, i.e. creating cocoons of biased information that will surround them and sway them to vote in a certain way.

All of this exposes that we are in a crisis of democracy.  In a true democracy, sovereign power flows from the people and all the political mechanisms and processes in place, including government, state, and political parties, reflect this fundamental relationship, i.e. government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Instead, everything is upside down.  The people are rendered powerless, viewed as a mass to be cynically manipulated by political party machines, globalized internet companies like Facebook and Google, and corporate oligarchs who control and dominate the political and economic sphere.

How to turn things right side up has become a necessity for all of us, wherever we live and no matter our political persuasion.

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, BC.  He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca 

References: