The Guardian Despises Facebook Datamining, Except When Obama Did It

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Obama’s database was labelled “the power of friendship”; Trump’s is a “psychological warfare tool”.

Of all the many cases of mass hysteria currently circulating the news cycle, this one is definitely my favourite:

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower

The left has apparently just discovered that tech companies are harvesting your data for their own profit.

Of course the really nefarious thing the media is stirring up this panic over is that right-wingers, previously consigned to the dark reaches of the internet, are now not only effective on it, but able to win elections with it. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is basically this; a data firm linked to Steve Bannon and the Mercers has figured out how to get Facebook users’ and their friends’ information, including information they thought was held privately, which helped Trump win the election.

The Guardian broke this story through whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, a “gay Canadian vegan” who used to work for Steve Bannon and helped build the datamining operation in question. Personal victimhood status such as a minority sexuality is of course absolutely necessary to being treated positively as a whistleblower — just ask Chelsea Manning. That’s why the original expose basically reads as a profile of Wylie stretching back to his childhood, rather than just explaining this nefarious “psychological warfare tool”.

Wylie oversaw what may have been the first critical breach. Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

Legitimately the most surprising part of that is that you can do a PhD in fashion trend forecasting.

The “psychological warfare tool” is a Facebook app called Thisisyourdigitallife made in 2014 by academic Aleksandr Kogan, a personality test which hundreds of thousands of users consented to and were paid to take. The app then collected information from each participant’s Facebook friends, which was allowed at that point by Facebook’s “platform policy” for the purpose of improving user experience in the app, but not allowed to be sold on or used for advertising. HOW COULD THE HONOUR SYSTEM HAVE FAILED TO PROTECT YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION?!?!

If you have ever played Farmville or used one of those stupid Horoscope apps, this has happened to you and you could be almost certain that your personal information has been converted into marketing intelligence and sold. In fact, virtually all digital marketing is based on this kind of social media mass data conglomeration, and most of the industry sees this as the future of marketing. Facebook even makes and retains ‘shadow profiles’ of people NOT on its social media sites. This practice was first alleged in 2011 and an established fact by 2014.

Here is a description of the Facebook app that helped Obama win in 2012, as reported by Time Magazine;

“I think this will wind up being the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for this campaign,” says Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director.

That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” says Goff. “Who do they trust? Their friends.

This wasn’t kept under wraps or hidden, rather, it was celebrated by the media. Here is Maxine Waters on television talking up the revolutionary system;

And here is the way The Guardian decided to report on this election-winning mass surveillance.

So for those keeping score at home, the difference is that the ‘breach’, being one firm selling the information to another (against Facebook’s policy) didn’t occur in the Obama case. In both cases, Facebook allowed the applications to harvest not only the consenting individual’s Facebook information, but information from their Facebook friends who didn’t consent.

A former Obama staffer alleges that Facebook visited the Obama campaign after figuring out how they’d harvested user’s friends data and told them “they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side”. That, to me, seems several times more corrupt than Kogan making a quick buck off your data instead of Facebook.

I must admit there are a number of people trying to make the best out of this scandal, such as Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish writer known for her work on the social implications of emerging technologies;

The stuff Facebook has been doing since it became a business tool is indeed deeply concerning. This issue was at play back when Trump was still tweeting dating advice to Robert Pattinson. I have little faith in general that a public, media and legislators can successfully fix this problem through regulation. That pessimism is amplified when they only seem to care when it happens on one side.

Reason Magazine, a conservative publication, has put together an excellent video on the marriage of Big Government and Big Data and the Surveillance State’s rapid post-9/11 expansion :


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