These Trying Times

Winner Take All (But the Blame)

March 18, 2018

As hard as it is to be shocked by anything anymore, the deeply reported story about how a politically-motivated marketing company used personal data of over fifty million unwitting people gathered through a Facebook app, collecting psychological profiles to merge with vast amounts of personal data is still pretty astonishing. Kudos to The New York Times and the Guardian’s Observer for their work.

At the same time, it’s no surprise at all. We’ve long known Cambridge Analytica was given lots of money by Robert Mercer, a far-right libertarian who teamed up with Steve Bannon then of Breitbart, to elect a president who would serve their political aims. We’ve known for almost as long as it has existed that Facebook gathers enormous amounts of personal data using emotional triggers, technology, obscure privacy policy shifts, and an enormous user base to become one of the world’s most powerful influence machines. We didn’t know much about the academic, Aleksandr Kogan, who wrote the app to get the data from Facebook in a way that violated their terms, but we knew from Cambridge Analytica’s marketing hype that they intended to gather data on virtually every American adult and match it with psycho-social profiles to effectively target political messages.

What’s still shocking, though, is the brazen disregard for common decency exhibited by all the players. Maybe it’s wrong to call it “common,” because generally accepted norms of behavior are no longer generally accepted. That’s pretty much a definition of “polarization.”

Cambridge Analytica is shocked, shocked to learn that the research they paid for was gathered in ways that Facebook didn’t technically allow but didn’t bother to check. Facebook, is shocked, shocked, that someone who said they would agree to terms by ticking a box on a form would fail to keep that agreement because, as a Facebook spokesman told the Times, “protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do.” How he said that with a straight face is beyond me. Kogan has said he did nothing wrong, though one of his employers, Cambridge University, might find his methods unethical even though Kogan performed this work under the auspices of a private company. (I literally guffawed when I read at his university profile that his lab is “highly interested in cooperation [and] trust” among other positive-sounding things.) I have no idea whether his other academic affiliation, St. Petersburg State University, considers his private business interests problematic. Evidently Cambridge was unaware of this side gig.

The joint investigative work of the Times and the Observer confirms some other unsavory things: the data that Cambridge Analytica said was destroyed hasn’t been; when a lawyer informed Mercer and Bannon foreigners couldn’t work on US political campaigns they set up an elaborate shell company to America-wash it all; the mechanism for influencing voters was tested first in Caribbean and African campaigns where privacy regulations aren’t such a bother. Facebook is outraged now, but only because the story was about to go public – as if their whole business doesn’t revolve around using personal data to manipulate people. There’s plenty that stinks about this.

What bothers me most, though, is that none of these parties has any sense of responsibility for the things they admit went wrong. It’s somebody else’s fault. Nobody seems to see these as their ethical breaches or breaches of trust. Just mistakes in the paperwork and bad PR.

Another analysis in the Sunday Times explains some of this attitude. A sizable portion of Americans believe in the absolute truth of their religion, in the absolute greatness of the United States, and an absolute devotion to individualism, including unregulated capitalism. It doesn’t matter if something is factually correct. It doesn’t matter when Trump publicly admits he made up information during an official visit from a head of state. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the United States didn’t have a trade deficit with Canada, and Trump told supporters at a fund-raiser “I didn’t even know. I just said ‘you’re wrong.’” Lying comes easy when you have no sense of shame.) According to Peter Baker’s “Washington Memo,” taking issue with facts is just political nit-picking to a segment of the population that adheres to a “deeper truth” that Trump represents for them more faithfully than the news media or any other secular institution. Winning matters, how you win is unimportant.

An academic doesn’t care a fig about research ethics. A wealthy man spends millions to manipulate millions to elect the leader he has chosen for us because he doesn’t want to leave that up to our democratic process. A company that manipulates billions of people around the globe to sell ads keeps pretending they have no responsibility for the damage it is doing and has no answers when asked how they plan to fix it. And we, the public, are all too happy to share sensational information without checking its accuracy or context. What a strange hole we’ve dug ourselves.

It’s not exactly news, but still it’s solid journalism. It’s not exactly a surprise, but it should be shocking if we have any sense of decency.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.