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Cambridge Analytica as a symptom of a bigger problem

Christopher Wylie , one of the brains behind Cambridge Analytica (CA), believes that his creature favored Brexit in the United Kingdom and facilitated the election of Donald Trump in the United States . Become an informer of his old company, Wylie was a key player in the exclusives obtained by The Guardian and The New York Times, which shows how CA illegally collected the personal data of 50 million Facebook users for the Trump presidential campaign. The exclusive comes after being verified that a Russian disinformation agencyHe intervened in the US elections through campaigns on social networks. This intensifies the climate of distrust towards Facebook and the concern with the fake news in the post-truth era. How alarming is the problem?

Wylie is right in her affirmation and, at the same time, she is saying a boutade . With the referendum decanting by 2% of the vote, the micro-targeting campaigns of CA may have been able to provide a key boost to Brexit (although there are doubts ). But this hypothetical impulse was multiplied by the climate generated by the traditional British press, whose tabloids have accumulated years of poisoning public opinion with deceptive articles on immigration. It could also be that the Remain campaignclumsy and anodyne, it was badly designed. Or that decades of austerity policies have pushed part of the British working class to compete against immigrants for increasingly scarce goods and services. The only thing that seems unlikely is a monocausal explanation of Brexit.

But this is the image that provides much of the coverage on disinformation and fake news , characterized by a decontextualized alarmism. A narrative that allows American journalists to compare these scandals with terrorist attacks or devastating acts of war. Ultimately, this overreaction only exacerbates the problem it seeks to combat.

 

Alarmism and Adamism

The sudden alarm generated by the news about manipulation in social networks is due to three fundamental factors. The first is a generalized ignorance of the functions that until now have been carried out by the five big companies that dominate the internet. Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft obtain a substantial part of their profits by monetizing the personal data of their users. As Yasha Levine points out in a penetrating essay , “it’s not just Facebook or Cambridge Analytica or even Google. It’s Amazon. It’s eBay. It’s Palantir . It’s Angry Birds(…) It is every application that you have downloaded. It’s every phone you’ve bought. ” CA is not even the tip of the iceberg.

The underlying problem is that the internet is dominated by private companies that benefit by violating the privacy of their users. The solution is not to fine Google or to have Mark Zuckerberg apologize, but to make structural changes. A public internet , inspired by the BBC model , is a suggestive proposal. They are also municipal projects for data management, such as those currently developed by Barcelona .

 
 

Once again: democratized/decentralized data ownership at the local (e.g. municipal) level is a necessary but not sufficient condition of emancipation. It has to be matched by national/regional efforts – probably *centralized* – to reclaim and/or rebuild infrastructure/networks.

 

In any case, we are not facing a new problem. As Levine points out, supervision and surveillance was among the original functions of the Internet when it was designed by the US Department of Defense. In the sixties, Ithiel de Sola Pool – a reference theoretician , who in many communication faculties is presented as a beloved visionary – created a CA predecessor with Simulmatics , a mass data processing system. The Pentagon came to use Simulmantics in the Phoenix Program , a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam . In Latin America , the use of hackers to manipulate electoral campaignsIt has been routine for years. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney resorted to targeting tools in their campaigns that, although less intrusive than those of CA, operated based on similar principles.

 

Poserdad and preverdad

Secondly, the beginning of an era of “post-truth” seems to suggest that there was no manipulation before the “Russian interference” and campaigns in social networks. Nothing is further from reality. The point is that, in the past, sources of misinformation were more centralized and responded more adequately to the pursuit of national interests.

The New York Times itself is an excellent example. In the months prior to the invasion of Iraq, the newspaper of reference in the US carried out a profound disinformation work through its correspondent Judith Miller , whose articles repeated uncritically the arguments of their sources in the White House, thus promoting the notion that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction. The modus operandi of the NYT has hardly changed: as a recent article by The Intercept shows , the newspaper does a very similar informative work with Iran, analyzing its actions through Israeli sources and neoconservative security experts who present them as aggressive, irrational and inadmissible The NYTit prevents its readers from developing cognitive empathy, which is essential to evaluate objectively any geopolitical conflict. In paladino román, manipulates them.

The Intercept emphasizes the lack of impartiality of many think tanks , foundations located in Washington that cultivate a technocratic image, but are often financed through Israeli donors or Gulf countries. In these cases, however, there is hardly talk of foreign interference. What has changed with social networks is that the ability to misinform has been democratized: it is no longer a few media and foundations that modulate the official discourse, but a host of actors, countries and companies that disfigure it to adapt it to their political agendas. The traditional media, displaced, react with hostility.

Third, scandals like Cambridge Analytica have a brutal irony. Anglo – Saxon liberalism in general (with its emphasis on civil society and freedom of expression) and particularly the Democratic Party (which Obama overturned in court to Silicon Valley ) have been taken, until the election of Trump, an absurdly utopian discourse with respect to information technologies. With the use of Twitter in the Arab Springa new era seemed to announce, in which ignorance and authoritarianism would collapse with a click. The idea that platforms such as Facebook were easily manipulated by third countries and ultra-reactionary movements at any time went through his head.

The election of Trump is a blow to the myopic optimism of Silicon Valley. The main positive aspect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that, once revealed, it raises an urgent debate about the supposed goodness of the companies that dominate the internet and have our data.

-JORGE TAMAMES

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