Why the news about Cambridge Analytica harvesting Facebook data is not surprising

By now everyone’s aware that social media companies gather user data. ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data,’ wrote The Economist, and it couldn’t be more correct. Most uncharacteristically for a free-market proponent like The Economist, it argued, ‘if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon.’

Data is what allows the internet to customise itself to your needs. Data is what allows political parties to understand where their voters might lie. And data — so far — has been treated with a disregard that has come to haunt us.

The recent controversy about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook users’ data to influence voter choices during the 2016 US Presidential election is simply an extrapolation of this data gathering Facebook already does. If you prefer Kid Rock to Kanye West, it’ll show you Republican party ads. If you click ‘Like’ on memes dissing Hillary Clinton, guess who’s gonna pop up on your Facebook feed. And if you’re one for conspiracy theories that tell you how immigrants are responsible for job losses, prepare to see your Facebook feed swamped with more such stories.

If you’ve been active on internet forums, you’ll know that Facebook’s data gathering has long been discussed on both sides. Cambridge Analytica? A Reddit user highlighted Richard Mercer, the conservative billionaire who backed Trump, is the main investor behind the company nearly a year ago. In a detailed post, user reegdor wrote:

“Microtargeting” of content is really interesting. Because Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedgefund guy behind Trump, is the main investor in Cambridge Analytica — a company that specializes in exactly that. It’s parent company is SCL Group (Strategic Communication Laboratories) which has been described as a “global election management agency” known for involvement “in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting”. In short, they specialize in military propaganda or ‘psyops’the largest shareholder of Cambridge Analytica is a business partner with Firtash, who has direct ties with Putin. Firtash is known to operate as a financing middleman for Putin’s foreign policy “operations”…it is entirely plausible Breitbart was involved in using bots and social media to help propagate news they knew would damage Hillary and help Trump.

Did Facebook know about the Russian connection?

See Reddit user Puffin_Fitness’s notes on the Facebook-Russian connection:

In 2009, Russian social-media mogul Yuri Milner invested $200 million into Facebook at a valuation of $10 billion dollars without voting rights or a seat on the board. To understand this investment, at the time the world was going through a global recession and Facebook’s general valuation had dropped from the $15 billion from the year prior to $4-$6 billion in 2009.

One company did offer a valuation of $8 billion, but with a seat on the board, which Zuckerberg was strongly against. In other words, Yuri Milner invested in Facebook when they were strapped for cash and at an inflated price without voting rights or a seat on the board. That’s an amazing deal for Zuckerberg!

The deal was coordinated by Alisher B. Usmanov, a Russian oligarch that earned his fortune managing steel mill subsidiaries for Gazprom.

Usmanov spent six years in prison for fraud and embezzlement in the 80's.

In 2008, Usmanov fired a publisher and editor at one of Russia’s most respected news paper after it published detailed accounts of Russian election fraud.

It is said, “His ties to the Kremlin and Facebook have stirred concerns that he might influence the company’s policies in subtle ways to appease governments in markets where Facebook is also an important tool of political dissent, such as Russia.” This was in 2009.

It is only now, when the floodgates have opened, that Facebook seems to have suddenly realised what went wrong!

Facebook didn’t become a multi-billion-dollar company by showing us cute dog pictures or videos of cats surfing. It became one of the world’s largest companies by taking the data we provide it and making it available to third-party users to target us with specific ads, and thus earning from the advertisers. It is, in effect, the world’s largest mall — but a mall that constantly knows where you are shopping and where you eat (and therefore your income levels), and beams ads at you in its neon-lit self-enclosed environment.

From hereon, it’s an easy stretch to convince you why a particular politician in the upcoming elections is bad for you or your interests — and I don’t even need real people to do that. Bots — or programs that mimic humans, in our case — will amplify the message by retweeting it or sharing it, or click farms — massive industrial units through which you can pay to get more Likes or Shares — will boost that message. ‘As many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15 percent — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people’, wrote the NYT in a biting investigation into fake social media users, while last November, ‘Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform.’

The uproar over Facebook’s data leak to Cambridge Analytica isn’t surprising to me for these reasons. The internet has evolved from the days when we considered it an accessory to our lives. It is now even a fundamental right in some countries. Along with the internet, the idea of privacy has changed. Today, algorithms know us better than our closest partners. Like a study found (and quoted in Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari’s fantastic sequel to Sapiens), ‘if you happened to have clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or your wife.’