Tech giants pose a threat to free will, or was it never there to begin with?
Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘The Great Hack’, which concerns itself with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and data harvesting in general. Since I have also been doing an internship here at BR-ND over the last two months, I felt there are some similarities between what we do, and what big tech companies like Facebook do. In the following blog I have tried to express some of my thoughts on the topic.
Whether you are talking about marketeers, psychologists, dietitians or influencers, in one way or another, the goal is to change people's behaviour. Anyone who has ever seen an ad for McDonalds or visited a dietitian knows that this is the aim. But what happens when these subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) attempts to steer someone's behaviour aren’t generally known by those who are being influenced. This is what I would like to call the grey area. Here, you can think of app creation to bind a consumer to whatever it is you’re selling, but also the posting of memes on Facebook to change the way someone is voting. Or does that actually go a step further?
Marketing, psychology or influencing are all based on the principle that people are persuadable, but those who are persuaded ultimately make the decision themselves. This is a necessary addition, as it then keeps intact the fundamental idea of liberalism, namely that we are all autonomous individuals who know themselves best. In the past, this was a perfectly normal conclusion since most people were indeed less capable of knowing and understanding you, than you. However, in our contemporary society the wide range of data points that are collected about anyone, ranging from which places you often visit to the cool cat costumes you purchased, enable big tech companies to know you better than you know yourself. And this is where the liberalistic ideal becomes dangerous. If we are still convinced that we are autonomous, then we inadvertently have to turn a blind eye to the influences of these companies’ actions as we “make our own decisions anyway”. Tempting as this may sound, unfortunately this won’t change the very real impact these companies have on your everyday life.
Let’s take a step back to marketing. Comparing the practices of marketeers and Facebook algorithm writers, the two seem quite far apart in their day to day activities. Nevertheless, both aim to do something quite similar. Maximise data traffic into a certain direction. For example, marketeers might aim to get people walking into certain stores, where Facebook algorithm writers aim to get users clicking and scrolling down Facebook's platform as much as possible. But there is another noticeable difference. Marketeers use the real life and digital playing field to reach their target segments. Facebook is it’s own digital playing field on which to do marketing. This difference is incredibly important because it allows the tech giant to completely adapt whatever message it wants to spread as it collects data about all its users (which it tries to maximise through things like personality test). So far, I’ve mainly been talking about Facebook, but it should be clear that all this is true for any company using big data sets on individual’s behavioural patterns. To sketch the potential impact of what can be done with data, Cambridge Analytica is an excellent example.
What started of as an organisation working with governmental special forces in conflict areas, turned out to shake the world with regards to the impact of data usage. Without going into too much detail, Cambridge Analytica worked with and trained army branches like the CIA to solve conflict without actually fighting. The idea was simple. Use personalised messaging to steer local populations away from an unwanted regime or militia group towards your own side, without firing a single shot. Genius. The technique was so effective that the company soon started shifting its attention away from solely working in conflict areas to helping prospective electoral candidates create winning campaigns.
Now this wasn’t creating your conventional ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. It would dig deeper into the psyche of the target population using all available data sets and creating messages or campaigns accordingly to win elections. First, Cambridge Analytica used its tactics far away from the western world, since most weren’t too bothered or even aware of one or the other Ethopian President or Sri Lankian regime winning elections. Only when it decided to try out its method in the US and UK, successfully I should add, people started to become aware. Not that the general public realized this on its own, we needed people like David Caroll to start asking questions which got the ball rolling. Not before the company managed some impressive feats though. When the name Cambridge Analytica had hit news headlines and had to shut its doors due to titles like ‘The Cambridge Analytica Scandal: Who owns your data owns you’, they helped (emphasis on helped) make Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit happen.
Here it becomes a sort of philosophical dilemma in my eyes. In essence, this organisation was working toward the same goal as most presidential campaigns before them. What’s more, the use of data about the voter to influence their vote is nothing new either. Using preferences regarding policy plans or flat out looks of the candidates is common practice to give your candidate an edge. However, Cambridge Analytica did go a step further by accessing (not illegally, I should add) broad data sets to know what drives specific voters in order to understand what buttons to press. Although it makes you wonder, is this going further or just working smarter? When marketeers aim to promote a new product, it and its target segment also get broken down to the smallest detail so you achieve the highest margin possible. The essential difference is that tech companies like Cambridge Analytica do not leave anything to chance, but go for mathematical precision. In a way, you could argue that they perfected the craft of marketeers or psychologist by being able to guarantee success.
There is an essential difference though. Where marketeers and influencers mainly shape the commercial landscape or dietitians and psychologists the lives of individuals, tech giants are able to shape the political and socio-economic landscapes as well. As this shapes your environment in many more ways than just the products that are available, one could argue they have crossed a line. But did commercials portraying women and men in sort of hyper sexualised settings not change the way we view each other? The answers to these questions aren’t easy ones, and probably have more than one answer depending on which perspective you take.
Nevertheless, I believe one lesson can be drawn from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the underlying world of data usage. It has shown us that people are indeed persuadable, if not flat out vulnerable to manipulation, without them necessarily knowing that they have been influenced and how it has affected their actions. Sure, this makes a lot of sense when you think about it, but do we, as a broader society, really understand what it implies. One way of thinking about the fact that we are persuadable is that we can change, which I believe to be a good thing. Another way though, is that we, and everyone around us, can be changed and manipulated so that we become more fragmented and polarized creating chasms between us that we might be unable to cross. And this, for me, is a scary thought. Because people like you and me, who could aim to change people’s behaviour or choices, are holding the same power in our hands as big tech companies like Google or Facebook. But where we might be able to harness this power and, at its worst, shape it into something equivalent to a gun or a knife, the Googles and Facebooks might be able to shape it into something more akin to a nuclear bomb...
If you haven’t watched the documentary yet, I would strongly recommend you to watch and share what you think about the topic. Since I am no expert on any of the topics I have discussed, I’d love to hear and learn from other perspectives to grow my understanding. If you would like to talk to me about it, feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or respond to this blog!