If you haven’t seen Channel 4’s epic investigation into the shady practices of election “consultants” Cambridge Analytica, check out my recap here. The tl;dr is that Cambridge Analytica (henceforth known as “CA” because writing it out is annoying) paid users to take a personality test on a third-party app, then scrawled the participants’ Facebook friends’ profiles for a treasure trove of data. They obtained details on upwards of 50 million user accounts based entirely off what Facebook knows about you—which is more than your co-workers or most of your friends do. And this is the central problem.
Sure, CA is a shady political actor, but they’re far from the first mongrels to use sex trafficking and corruption to entrap politicians or to influence elections with psychological warfare. They’re just the digital version of the same existential political threat which has existed since the dawn of democracy. CA wouldn’t exist if not for the data they subsist on (and the financial backing of the Mercer family), and Facebook is sitting on a literal gold mine that any rudimentary coder who understands their API can plug into.
All CA did was take the existing business model of, well, the Internet, and apply it to politics. Every one of us has a psychological profile that makes us susceptible to certain stimuli (like fear), and companies have paid billions of dollars to figure out what makes us tick so they can sell us stuff. This is as old as advertising itself. The difference here is that the product was Donald Trump, as opposed to say, Ford. CA did not build this system, they’re just playing in the sandbox that we curate every single day. It’s time we took a hard look at what we really, truly, tangibly do on the internet.
Confessions of An ex-Entrepreneur
I tried to start a tech company once. I looked at the incredible ability of Twitter to instantly deliver content and sought to cut out the noise by basically wrapping a social network around an RSS library. When I sold the business to our potential customers, I pitched it as a reproduction of Twitter’s best functions, but on a smaller and more private scale. When I sold it to potential investors, I spent at least two thirds of my time talking about one thing: selling your data.
What really drove my faith in the business was not just the problem that I believed I was fixing (finding and discussing good content with your friends/colleagues/internet friends without @pepefan69 tweeting Nazi frog memes at you), but the gold rush that I desperately wanted to get in on as a broke, unemployed guy in his early 20’s. Because the entire business model of the Internet is essentially based on advertising, user data is King.
User data is effectively a global currency. It is far more valuable for me to know one day’s worth of your reading habits than to simply be paid $1 by you to use my service. That’s why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc…are free. Tracking your every move is far more valuable to their business than their website is to you. Code allows us to build projects at grand scale with a fraction of the labor.
For example: Facebook has about 25,000 employees. Walmart has over two million. Yet Facebook has almost double the market cap of Walmart.
Given the eternal bounty that is user data, there is almost no better blind bet for a venture capitalist than a tech company that obtains user data. Even if the company goes out of business, the data is still usable. Plus, with how much of our lives we willingly spread across the Internet, it’s incredibly easy for algorithms to scrawl the web, combine it with data that company has on you, and compile a profile of each and every one of us.
Over the course of several fruitless chases for seed funding, only one part of my pitch gained any real traction with potential investors: that we could deliver hyper-targeted advertising because readers would essentially be telling us what they were most interested in by tracking the websites they were visiting. The user data model that I pitched (if people used us as their single point of liftoff into the content corners of the web) was basically Facebook on steroids when it came to user data. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t get the concept far enough off the ground to warrant the Series A that was vaguely promised at the end of some of these meetings.
In hindsight, failure may have been a good thing. Sure, ultimate success would have meant that I’d be a millionaire (at least) by now. But watching the interview with Cambridge Analytica’s whistleblower, Chris Wylie, made me really ponder whether I could face up to the reality of what targeted advertising really is if I were profiting immensely from it. Simply put, it’s the greatest innovation in the history of propaganda.
How Facebook Actually Works
We live in a simultaneously hyper-interconnected and isolated time. It’s not a weird thing to have more friends on the Internet than in real life anymore. The digital age has broken down borders in a way that no political or economic system ever has, and we still are just beginning to grasp the basic concept of a reality which no other humans have ever experienced. Targeted advertising is simply the logical conclusion of sharing so much of who we are online, combined with the basic business model of the Internet.
This new reality, combined with the inherent nature of capitalism, is a central part of the problem here. Capitalism’s desire to pursue shareholders’ interests and not the public good has incentivized greed to a staggering degree given the resources and incentives at play. Libby Watson put it perfectly at Splinter last week:
Yes, sure, maybe you should have known that Facebook, or Google or Twitter or your ISP for that matter, was providing that “free” service in exchange for your data. It is true that there has been a tremendous failure of education about what it means to be online today, and what we give up when we go online; none of this was mentioned in my Information Technology classes in secondary school, which predated Facebook and YouTube and most of what we recognize as online today. But even if people do vaguely know that their data is being harvested online, they are never going to comb through every user agreement they sign, or read every privacy notice. That is exactly why broadband privacy rules would have been a good step, and why broadband companies fought them so hard. If you’re interested in protecting consumers, it’s an obvious first step to make companies get affirmative, clear consent to sell your data, and to be specific about what they’re collecting and what they do with it. Because they’ll never be transparent voluntarily. When’s the last time Facebook sent you a notification telling you what it’s collected or sold? Or Google, or Twitter, or your ISP?
Toss away the digital veneer of Facebook and look at it from a cold, hard reality—eliminate the digital representation entirely—Facebook is nothing more than an army of servers. Sure, there’s administrative staff to deal with the various ripples coming out of these oceans of information, but the same way that Ford’s product mainly consists of hunks of metal, Facebook’s product is simply just software on a server. You may be pressing send when giving your information to your friends, but it’s first going into Facebook’s hands before being distributed out to the masses. Your friend receiving your content is simply a consequence of the larger goal: squeezing every penny out of your humanity on digital bits.
Even third-party applications are not completely safe, as Ian Bogost, creator of the satirical Facebook game Cow Clicker, wrote in The Atlantic:
When a user loads an app, Facebook’s servers pass those requests to a remote computer, where the individual or company that made the app hosts their services. The app sends its responses to Facebook, which formats and presents them to the user, as if they were inside of Facebook itself.
The authorization process happens once, the first time the app is accessed for a specific user. After that, every time the user loads the app, Facebook sends it a payload of basic user data to facilitate the app’s operation (additional data can be requested separately when needed). For years, these transmissions were even conducted unencrypted, until Facebook required apps to communicate with its service over a secure connection.
We may look back on Trump’s election as the watershed moment where we fully understood the negative consequences of the digital age. Past generations declared the Cold War and the 1990s as the end of history, and millennials were promised a world that would only improve with age. The technology surrounding us was supposedly proof.
We’re Part of the Problem, Which Means That We Can Fix It
The schism in the Democratic Party is partly generational. Millennials and the emerging “we call BS” generation are fed up with the denial which has taken root over the past few decades. Everything is not OK. The tech companies are not benevolent overlords supposedly here to help propel capitalism to even greater heights. They’re small communities largely run by out of touch technocrats with spying capabilities similar to the NSA, but with infinitely less oversight.
It took Facebook forever to even respond to this “not a data breach” because Mark Zuckerberg has espoused a childish worldview of Facebook’s supposedly rosy contributions to society. His deafening silence in the wake of Channel 4’s report was reflective of a vocabulary completely unprepared for failure. Silicon Valley has the same unearned mythos in American culture that Wall Street gained in the 1980s, and we saw how that worked out.
The financial cataclysm of 2007 served as the comeuppance for Wall Street’s crimes of greed over the past few decades, and the timing of the 2016 election to the rise of the Internet in the 1990s is poetic. Facebook had a massive influence in creating President Donald J. Trump. The internet is an immensely powerful tool that we are all only just beginning to understand, and my hope is that this Cambridge Analytica report may have broken the fever.
#DeleteFacebook is a discussion which has taken root in the wake of their failures to prevent Russian subversion of our election, and last week it reached a fever pitch with Channel 4’s investigative bombshell into the actions of Cambridge Analytica on Facebook. The creator of WhatsApp said that “it’s time” to #DeleteFacebook, and this backlash prompted a series of panicked responses from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg that reflected a couple of executives genuinely fearful of losing their dominant place in the infrastructure of the internet. Unlike a lot of supply versus demand battles, the ultimate power in this equation rests on the demand side.
Where else are you going to share photos and updates with your family?
— Any messaging app
Where else are you going to find news updates?
— E-mail subscriptions/newsletters
— Any messaging app
— Bookmarked websites
— Any news aggregation app
Many of Facebook’s basic functions can be replaced by apps and other, already familiar digital methods. This reality, combined with the horrible PR now enveloping Facebook, has knocked about $60 billion off its market cap in the past couple weeks. It sounds crazy to think that Facebook can effectively disappear, but it also sounded nuts to think that about Yahoo! in 2000. Times change. You can never truly quit Facebook, but you do have some control over how much they know about you.
Social networks are specifically designed to prey on the chemical rewards system inside our brains. It’s hard to just stop posting and liking and commenting once you have become fully ingrained in all these online communities, but you can share less about yourself with your friends on social media, as there are plenty of other avenues to connect. Seriously consider what third-party apps you plug into these social networks and who you really trust your data with. Facebook talks a lot about trust, but the word “rights” hasn’t appeared in any of their responses to this crisis. It’s not enough for a company to earn our faith in it, they must protect our basic democratic rights, and Facebook’s business model is specifically designed to eschew that in favor of commodifying each and every one of us.
The most valuable thing in Silicon Valley isn’t the talent roaming its halls or the capital flooding its coffers, but the data that we supply them with. If not for the packets of humanity we constantly send their way, no advertisers would talk to them. Starving the beast is an actual option here, and we should all begin to consider various methods to accomplish that task. Think about it this way: If these tech companies are willing to provide us products “for free,” then that means we have a powerful hand to play, so let’s play it.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.