SINGAPORE: The current situation with Cambridge Analytica and its misuse of Facebook material points to some of the unsavory dimensions of our online lives.
Cambridge Analytica is a company, financed in part by the conservative financier Robert Mercer, which has used a variety of suspicious tactics to elect conservative politicians, such as Donald Trump in the US, and support conservative causes, such as Brexit in the UK, many have pointed out.
Numerous news reports have highlighted that in addition to the misuse of Facebook material, Cambridge Analytica has also used various “dirty tricks” techniques such as the use of front companies and subcontractors to pay bribes, and employed “honeypot” sex workers in the pursuit of their goals.
Looking specifically at the issue of the misuse of data, Cambridge Analytica has developed tools that allow it to use information derived from social network sites such as Facebook to micro-target users with false news, based on their specific Facebook profiles and use patterns.
These Facebook posts are calculated to match our personality and thus they are more engaging. In this way they basically reinforce our pre-conceived ideas.
For example, if we were an American voter who was somewhat skeptical towards Hillary Clinton, a Facebook post that questions her patriotism, even when fabricated, can nudge us towards supporting Donald Trump.
WEAPONISING OUR DATA
All this data mining and micro-targeting have been done without the permission of users and thus the use of personal information in order to mislead voters is extremely problematic.
Indeed, this activity destroys the innocence associated with the use of social networking sites.
It shows how our chatting, sharing of photos and engaging in light social discourse can be weaponised. It shows how these posts shape our attitudes by pandering to our beliefs.
What is the social cost? At the first level, this type of activity poisons the simple joy of exchanging pleasantries with our friends and acquaintances on these platforms.
Social interaction is one of the key dimensions of social networking. We can catch up with friends, show them our vacation pictures and share harmless jokes. In this way, these platforms help us to weave the fabric of our social lives.
They make our interactions richer and they give us access to social ties that would otherwise be unavailable. The misuse of this social information can make us wary where before there was enjoyment.
A FORCE FOR SOCIAL GOOD
Thinking somewhat more abstractly, the digital traces produced by these social networks are also a tool through which social good arises.
Social media and other forms of digital traces (such as mobile phone metadata) represent a new tool with which to address major social issues. Indeed, large-scale databases can be used for social good and socioeconomic improvement.
Two examples illustrate this. One is the work done by researchers in the US, particularly in Harvard, on the use of mobile phone call data records and mobile phone location traces. Researchers drew on this data to follow the spread of infectious diseases.
Careful use of location information and its mapping gives insight into the spread of diseases such as malaria, dengue, zika, and influenza. This, in turn, means that medicines can be transported to the areas where the diseases are spreading.
Rather than having authorities guess as to the direction and the dynamics of the spreading, they can be more certain and they can mobilise resources appropriately.
Other examples were seen in the wake of the Haitian earthquake in 2010 by researchers in Stockholm and the 2015 Nepalese earthquake by researchers at Southhampton.
Again, tracing the location of people via their mobile phones and their use of social media meant that authorities knew, with better precision, where the refugees or victims were located. This meant that relief resources could be moved to the appropriate locations and thus better meet social needs.
The real-time use of these digital traces means that we can create a society that is more responsive to the needs of people.
VIOLATE OUR SENSE OF PROPRIETY
In this context, the unethical use by companies such as Cambridge Analytica violate our sense of propriety and they cast the shadow of doubt over legitimate and socially constructive uses of big data.
Further, the development of fake news campaigns, spread via social networks such as Facebook, undercuts the legitimacy of traditional news sources since the reader may be reluctant to trust the broader news industry.
In sum, the social havoc wrought by companies such as Cambridge Analytica tears at the fabric of society.
Will this scandal mean that we shy away from the positive use of social media? Can regulation be developed that will allow the positive use of these platforms while clamping down on the misuse?
It is clear that social media can be a force for good. It is also clear that in order to fulfill this assignment, we cannot cast out the baby with the bath water.
Rich Ling is Shaw Foundation Professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. His research focuses on media technology and the social consequences of mobile communication.