The media has recently been filled with details of how Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, has been forced to testify before the US Congress after failing to protect tens of millions of users’ confidential and personal data.
These data have been sold, or even stolen by third parties. In the case of data mining political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, personal data were collected from Facebook and sold to political campaigns such as Ted Cruz’s in order to try and manipulate public voting.
By personalising bourgeois propaganda better to suit the users’ supposed views (as deduced from their online activity), Cambridge Analytica did its best to manipulate voters into supporting its client’s candidate.
The data used by Cambridge Analytica were gathered through a simple personality quiz on Facebook. Users would install this quiz as an application through Facebook and, after agreeing to give it permission, the app would receive a wealth of information on the user (more than enough to qualify for identity fraud), including name, address, numbers and friends list.
Few users were aware of the extent of the access they were giving to the app, even after having ticked the consent box, and even fewer had any idea that the information might be sold on to other companies and businesses to use as they saw fit.
Nothing new here
There is nothing new in this collection of data, however; it is the same method used to display personalised advertising on Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. Such websites track what their users engage with online and use the information to make educated guesses about which adverts would be suited to them.
For example, if someone looks at computers on Amazon they may shortly notice that other websites like Facebook and YouTube are showing adverts for the same products. When it comes to political manipulation, this information is used to target users with personalised propaganda.
Facebook advertising was primarily used to show users articles about candidates that consultancies buying the ads did not want to win. The hope was that, having seen stories about the scandals a particular candidate was involved in, users may have decided to change their vote.
In short, and entirely typically, American and British companies have been caught doing exactly what their governments constantly accuse Russia of – without a shred of credible evidence.
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are, however, massively overstating the extent of their influence.
For a start, only 300,000 people installed the quiz that was used to gather users’ personal data. 300,000 is significantly fewer than the figures being bandied about, which have reached as high as 78 million. This does not mean data were not gathered on these 78 million users, but simply that the company could not gather as much information on those who did not install the application that gave detailed access.
Moreover, there is no evidence to support the idea that a significant proportion of those targeted really were influenced in the way intended. No doubt some were, but it would seem that personalisation accuracy in advertising, although good enough to feel pretty creepy (receiving ads on one website for something you’ve just been looking at on another), is not yet good enough to be consistently effective.
We all have experience, for example, of being persistently shown ads for something we have just bought (and therefore are no longer in need of), or of being shown ads for products related to something we bought for someone else, or which are supposed to be of interest to ‘average’ people in our sex and age bracket – and which we have no interest in whatsoever.
It should not really come as a surprise that corporations are treating confidential user information as a commodity to be bought and sold. After all, imperialist governments’ misuse of data has been revealed before by leaks from the National Security Agency (NSA – the US’s domestic spying agency). How can citizens either inside or outside of the US still be shocked at our rulers’ methods?
Even in terms of corporate data collection, the issue is not new to the public domain. Cambridge Analytica has been collecting its dataset since 2014, and Facebook was first put under investigation for the breach of its users’ confidential data in 2011.
Many US citizens, however, continue to believe that they live not only in a democracy, but in the most democratic democracy in the world – even after being shown how business interests are seeking to manipulate their votes.
Ever since the 2016 US election, the liberal bourgeois media have been claiming hysterically that the Russian government is guilty of meddling in US elections. As it turns out, however, it is American corporations that have been meddling in their own elections the whole time. Who would have guessed?
The drive towards internet censorship
Nevertheless, liberals and the liberal media are continually trying to fabricate reasons as to why Donald Trump was elected as US president, finding it impossible to acknowledge that a large portion of the American populace willingly voted for him. A large section of the bourgeoisie (the section whose huge media corporations failed to control the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election) is now trying to use these issues to gain control of the internet through censorship – under the pretence of protecting the public and democracy.
This follows previous attempts in 2011-12, when the US Congress attempted to push SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) through congress under the cover of ‘preventing illegal pirating’ of online content. In reality, these acts would have drastically changed how the internet is used and operated, and would have offered zero benefit to users.
For example, if these acts had been passed, internet providers would have been able to shut down any website at any time without any meaningful justification. They could simply claim that a website was engaged in piracy – which could be defined as anything from hosting files to having forums and comments sections in which piracy was discussed – and then shut it down indefinitely.
Naturally, socialist and independent news sites that don’t follow the bourgeois agenda would have been targeted.
Although the internet is dominated, like all other media, by a tiny handful of hugely powerful corporations, which are able to shape most people’s experience and channel them towards harmless (to capitalist rule) content, the nature of the platform means that anyone can put information onto it and what the upload can then be viewed from anywhere in the world.
While this information may not be placed in front of many internet users by default, the fact that they can find it if they decide to look means that as more people grow sceptical of the narrative in the corporate imperialist media, websites offering an alternative viewpoint are becoming increasingly popular.
Moreover, social media sites have been successfully used by a handful of persistent independent anti-imperialist voices to great effect, much to the annoyance of the imperialist lie machine, whose employees find they can no longer turn a blind eye to every inconvenient aspect of a story because the truth has a way of filtering out and exposing them.
This explains why censorship of the internet, and of social media in particular, is becoming a key issue for the ruling class. It disgusts our rulers that there can be a place where workers can freely discuss and host information that does not conform to their class agenda.
If the ruling class could, it would immediately have every website that undermines its lies shut down. For the moment, however, independent and communist voices are still able to operate in relative freedom – mainly because their forces are still so small.
Anti-imperialists must stand up to the barrage of hysterical propaganda branding them as ‘Russian bots’, ‘Putin’s pawns’, purveyors of ‘fake news’ and the like, and continue to use every opportunity and platform available to expose the lies of the imperialists – in particular, the lies that fuel the imperialist war machine.
Communists must take this analysis further and explain to the working class that the capitalist class is the enemy and must be crushed by the power of organised workers.
Only socialism will be able to bring us real freedom of expression – by abolishing the corporate-owned private media monopolies and creating a popular press accessible to the working class.