Recently a new film called The Great Hack was released by film makers Karin Amer and Jehane Noujaim, who also documented the Arab Spring movement in Egypt a few years ago.
Characters in the film describe how the “handmaidens of authoritarianism” like facebook are “playing with the psychology of an entire country without their consent or awareness… in the context of the democratic process.”
The Great Hack recounts the story of how Facebook sold the data of millions of people to a company called Cambridge Analytica, which is based in the United Kingdom. But this is not just about the undermining of personal data of millions of people. This is not just about my baby photos, our salad photos, our stories being used in ways we did not intend. The story is far grimmer. The data was used to undermine democracy in many countries across the world. This is the scary part of the story, which should give us all pause.
The personal data and personal preferences of individual people from Facebook, was used by Cambridge Analytica to sow division in countries across the world, with the sole objective of undermining democracy and allowing political wins. This definitely was the case in the US during the 2016 presidential election where data was used to identify the ‘not-sure’ people, called “persuadables” and they were specifically fed information that would increase their support for Donald Trump.
The same tactic was used by the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, in a process called Brexit, in 2016. Over three years later, the Brexit process continues to divide the people of the UK in terrible, democracy undermining ways. Just a few days ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got the British monarch to suspend British parliament so that his Brexit deal could not be discussed and criticised in Parliament. This is a clear violation of democracy.
These democracy killing tactics were also used in many other countries. One such example was the meddling and undermining of democracy by manipulating young voters in the presidential election in Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, where facebook ads etc were used to suppress voting by a specific racial group in the country. At first the ruling party of Trinidad and Tobago just denied it, but since then they have been forced to admit that they did have conversations with Cambridge Analytica!
Although Cambridge Analytica personnel admitted to meddling in the US, Trinidad and Tobago and other countries, they never admitted to meddling in Brexit. The reason is probably that, since Cambridge Analytica was based in the UK at the time of these activities, admitting to have meddled in a UK political process would surely bring them severe consequences. But this is speculation. It is not clear why they always denied being involved in Brexit although their staff members are on tape being involved with members of the ‘Leave’ campaign.
What does this all mean? This is the new age of surveillance capitalism and the way it is undermining our human rights is frighteningly real. We fight the unmitigated power and impunity of trans national corporations (TNCs), we are fighting for a binding treaty where TNCs power and impunity can be controlled. TNCs push dirty and harmful energy across the world, they are accelerating deforestation and exacerbating food insecurity across the world. Now we discover a whole new nefariousness of TNCs- big tech corporations have so much power now that they are using our data to undermine our basic democratic rights. Representative democracy is a system where the decision-makers are elected by the people and hence people have a role and voice in the decisions that affect their lives. So decision-makers must be accountable to the people who elected them. However, we have been seeing for many years that our democratic systems have been slowly undermined. Often this takes place through the undue influence of money- those who spent more money in an election usually have been winning. But now this has been taken to a whole new level. Our political preferences which we share on social media are being tracked and used against us.
Our democracies and our societies are under attack. An article in the Guardian from 8 August 2019 revealed that “Nearly half the world’s people are living in countries where their freedom of speech and right to privacy are being eroded”. Our country, Mozambique, was listed as one of the countries where the freedom of expression in under extreme risk. This is very worrying.
So what happened to the corporation Cambridge Analytica? In end July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission of the United States levied a fine of $5 billion against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. This was prompted by the release of The Great Hack. This is already a useful move because it attacks the money of these dirty corporations. But its not nearly enough. Cambridge Analytica was shut down but its assets were bought by the influential Mercer family and their sub-companies. What does this mean? Will the cycle of impunity of the corporations just continue unabated? We need to fight these trends. It is sometimes said that if we live in the modern world today, it is like living in a glass house. Our data is much too public. But we as consumers, as activists need to fight back against the impunity of big tech corporations. Maybe this means we need to, at least, put up curtains in our glass house. We need to protect ourselves and help other activists protect themselves. Our democracies are at stake. The stakes are really high. We need to inform ourselves and fight against this manipulation of us and the killing of our democracies.
For more information, see the twitter accounts of these people: