Our data, taken without our consent, can be used for informational warfare that harms our democracy.
The Cambridge Analytica (CA) controversy has captured international mindspace over the last two days. In an interview with the Guardian, Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower at CA, laid bare the facts of how the company, under the influence of Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart) and Robert Mercer (an AI billionaire and Republican donor) used data from social media for “information warfare”. Wylie claims that over 50 million Facebook user profiles were harvested under false pretences, and then used for ballot box gains in the 2016 US presidential elections.
People not only share and like things on social media, but often participate in “free” quizzes and personality tests that let these social media companies gather data on their personal and ideological preferences. The analysed data can then used for commercial purposes, by either directly displaying ads and news tailored to particular demographic groups, or by further passing this data (knowingly or otherwise) to analytics companies like CA. The data analytics firms combine data from multiple sources and, using highly advanced algorithms, can generate sophisticated psychological profiles at group and individual levels. They can sell these to anyone who stands to profit from exploiting this data. These profiles are powerful tools, and can be used for tactical and strategic purposes against one’s opponent, or for spreading propaganda and fake news to influence susceptible people. Thus ensues “information warfare”.
Why is it a Big Deal?
Let’s quickly recap what took place in the 2016 American elections.
A billionaire investor (Mercer), in conjunction with the editor of a fringe news outlet (Bannon), used a third-party firm (Cambridge Analytica) to mine the information of millions of social media (Facebook) users without their consent. The firm generated psychological profiles and targeted ads to influence their voting choices without their consent or knowledge.
“Fundamentally,” argues Wylie, “information warfare is not conducive to democracy.” This is clearly true. The democratic functioning of a sovereign state was attacked using information warfare. This was done by an external actor, with an almost unregulated, all-pervasive corporation as (at least) an interested partner.
Democracies – in fact, citizens – the world over should be concerned. The actions of social media and analytics companies are a clear threat to voters’ rights to make free and fair choices. But there is also the disturbing possibility of states using these non-state actors to influence and coerce minds within and outside their borders. This influence is always on sale to the highest bidder.
With the general elections scheduled for next year, Indian voters, especially, should be very worried.
The ruling BJP has already gained a lot of attention for its use of social media consultants and an “IT Cell” and bots to tailor and spread narratives, as well as to, spread inflammatory content and fake news. The Congress, too, has recently revamped its own social media presence.
It has been reported that CA has “had talks with the Congress and the BJP”. Given what we know about India’s issues with data security, it is reasonable to assume that if CA is allowed to, it could harvest not only social media profiles but also credit and retail information. The level of individual psychological profiling and targeting that will be on sale to the highest bidder cannot be underestimated. This is especially concerning given that the Finance Bill, rushed through Parliament last week (without any debate), essentially legalises anonymous corporate donations to political parties, allowing them to build huge war chests.
Beyond the threat to India’s democratic functioning, there could also be serious threats to India’s already taut social fabric. One of CA’s modi operandi is to send out thousands of variants of ads to various locales, observing which trends perform best in a particular area, and then tailoring the candidate’s message and campaign schedule accordingly. Religious or communal issues could potentially become explosive with the degree of virality and specificity that would now be possible. As we near election day, it is likely that the country will become increasingly polarised as vested interests pour more and more money into social media analytics firms and targeted advertisements.
Given this, can voters ever again be sure that their electoral choices, or even their basic political actions, are based on accurate and unbiased information? Can they feel confident that their subconscious biases have not been moulded by a wealthy, anonymous donor or an unscrupulous political party?
There are no easy solutions to this problem, and a regulatory or governance framework may not be in the interests of those in power. All that citizens can do is be aware that there are deeper forces seeking to exploit them through their online activity. Information shared via social media – especially unverifiable sources such as WhatsApp – should never be taken for granted, or allowed to shape our voting decisions.