Mark Zuckerberg has always had both great ambition and borderline neurotic attention to Facebook users’ reactions every time he releases algorithm updates to rake in more data. That’s why he announced campaigns to fight fake news, racism and xenophobia, all of which could pollute the regular flow of data on the network.
Zuckerberg started Facebook to develop a global community governed by political correctness, where people could express themselves without harming other users’ dignity. While he might share a democratic and cosmopolitan vision, the only thing that really matters is that money keeps flowing into Facebook’s reserves, and that — some analysts claim — earnings are proportional to the degree of morality and transparency the social network is managed with. It doesn’t matter if data is then packaged and sold to the highest bidder behind closed doors.
At the end of the day, Facebook’s terms and conditions establish that individuals transfer ownership of their personal data — photos, posts, videos — to Mark Zuckerberg, who can then process it as he pleases.
This might not spark outrage in the US, but in Europe it amounts to a violation of both privacy and individual sovereignty over internet communication. It is a legal, juridical and political difference that stood out in all its force in the Cambridge Analytica files.
The European Union has reacted emphasizing that certain individual rights cannot be relinquished to business, while from the outset the UK and US have focused on the issue of the legitimacy of buying and selling personal data ahead of an election or referendum. However, this isn’t the first American election marred by the profiling of users to micro-target political propaganda. Both Republicans and Democrats have done it in the past. What was striking this time was that Trump resorted to it — he’s always despised Silicon Valley types for their cosmopolitan ideas he claims are anti-American. And Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech companies certainly despise him too. But everything is fair game in politics: even buying personal data of 50 million Americans to personalize an electoral campaign.
I might decide to transfer rights on my personal data, but, dear Mark, use it well: in the US, Facebook’s breach of trust was the source of public outrage.
Facebook was made to pay for it Tuesday, as its shares dwindled on the stock market. But all big data is a risk for democracy. Facebook, just like all other web technologies, is both a company and a technology for social control. The Cambridge Analytica files shine a light on public opinion manipulation practices, from boosting approval to the relationship between new and old media.
The internet is a virtually unlimited repository of anxieties, desires, and needs of men and women. Whoever controls it has greater power than nation states and international organizations. Hence, competition is harsh: that repository is the raw material of business – it’s collected, processed, packaged and sold in order to advertise, but also to understand moods, tensions and lifestyles in the real world. The manipulation of public opinion is a business like many others, and it has the power to influence old media, too (TV, radio, print). In a nutshell: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Google — not to mention the Chinese Baidu and Alibaba — are both economic and political superpowers.
Indeed, the internet is radically reshaping the relationship between politics and the economy — paving the way for the latter’s supremacy on the former. Perhaps that’s why Mark Zuckerberg is keeping a low profile: it might all turn into a storm in a teacup. You could bet we’ll find out other politicians who abused big data. But it would be politically relevant if practices of data collection, processing and reduction to goods to sell on a market became the center of the debate.
The resulting bigger picture would be one of electoral consultants and strategists who sell not only their skills, but also a worldview and social ideas to deepen subordination of the governed to the governors. Indeed, algorithms are never neutral, because they always serve a worldview. Cambridge Analytica is only a piece of the great internet puzzle: an example that has been revealed to the public and shows how post-democracies work.