“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it” – Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the future of the surveillance economy

The SmallDataForum convened in late March, and as for our big story, we had several candidates and angles on the same theme of the use and abuse of data.

Sam is now a newly published author of a book about how to tell powerful and purposeful stories with data, Narrative by Numbers. A very timely (and equally timeless) topic and title.

A recently published study in Science about the velocity and spread of true and false news online caught our attention. Tina McCorkindale, CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, did a great analysis with key takeaways for communicators.

Discussing the study, Sam referred to Jonathan Swift’s famous quote from 1710 in The Art of Political Lying that “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect”.

It is also a fitting motto for Calling Bullshit, that cheekily named MOOC on our modern challenge with facts and critical, analytic thoughts, by US academics Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West.

The ability to think critically is a key factor in addressing our manifold disinformation challenges. There is a lot of hype, as well as widespread scepticism about Cambridge Analytica’s claims about their groundbreaking use of data for psychological profiling and microtargeting, and former CEO Alex Nix’s role as digital Svengali or snake-oil salesman.

Former Facebook head of ad targeting Antonio Garcia Martinez is an authoritative voice, and his Wired piece on the “noisy fallacies” of psychographics is a must read.

Less of a must read, but a good trigger for a lively discussion was an article on Medium which claims that “almost everything reported about the Cambridge Analytica Facebook controversy is wrong”.

It is more focused on criticising the media, than connecting the dots between the various interested and involved parties. For example, when the focus is on the connection with the world of military information operations, SCL, the company behind Cambridge Analytica (CA), is the more interesting story. Both SCL and CA worked  for British and American security services.

There is also a connection to Bell Pottinger, the disgraced UK communications firm which earned more than $500m from propaganda work for the Pentagon in Iraq – work that was led at the time by Mark Turnbull, now managing director of SCL Elections (and featuring prominently in Channel4’s undercover reporting).

The close proximity to military propaganda is one uncomfortable aspect of the wider story. But it is also worth mentioning that in the study of what makes news, the negative, the sensational, the controversial and the unexpected have always dominated.

That was the finding of the first systematic news values analysis by Norwegian scholars Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge in 1965 in The Structure of Foreign News. And it still applies in the social media age, as this 2017 paper on new news values proves. As Neville pointed out, it’s the type of content that triggers an emotional reaction, and it can now travel faster than ever through our (dis)information sphere.

This brings us back to Facebook and its present and future challenges. In a recent blog post, Neville outlined some of the options for Facebook: perhaps there is a price to pay for a social platform free of advertising and monetising private data, and that perhaps many users would be willing to pay the subscription fees that such a service would entail?

At the same time, the story is undoubtedly ‘bigger than Facebook’. It goes to the heart of the prevailing social platform business model, where users enjoy a seemingly free service in return for their personal data, which the platforms sell to advertisers.

This is a big challenge for the traditional news media, as this study by the Columbia School of Journalism showed. It is now being discussed as an even bigger challenge, one that erodes the fabric of civic society through violations of privacy and large-scale manipulations of public opinion.

For some critical observers, this is a consequence of surveillance capitalism, the monetisation of user data in every aspect of our digital economy and society.

After a series of public relations blunders in recent weeks, Facebook is now taking steps not only to comply with GDPR, but also to address the growing twin problems of eroding trust within its user base, as well as a plunge in its share price (even more so after the FTC announced a probe into potential data handling violations). Investors are now discussing similarities to the banking crisis when it comes to regulation, legislation and possible litigation.

As the waves of scathing commentary continue about “How Facebook Blew It”, it is instructive to look more closely at the argument of users knowingly agreeing to terms and conditions.

It is as much of a cop-out as Facebook’s and Google’s argument as to why they can’t be treated as publishers (as Sam pointed out, the main reason is that they don’t want to be regulated as media companies).

In a talk at the London School of Economics in 2015, the philosophers Baroness Onora O’Neill and Jonathan Wolff discussed the concepts of informed consent and how, if done right, it contributes to the formation of trust.

Somebody should send it to Mark Zuckerberg.

Listen to episode 17:

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