Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Big tech, big trouble

The recent exposure of malpractice by the UK company Cambridge Analytica is hardly new, as data-harvesting has become the modus operandi of the world’s tech giants over recent years, writes Nadine Loza


US software freedom pioneer Richard Stallman has warned that “the only database that is not dangerous is the one that is never collected” and notes that under current levels of surveillance, true democracy cannot now be said to exist anywhere in the world. He is also not being cynical in saying that all personal information that people can imagine misusing will be misused, whether by the company collecting the data, the state or a third party.

Citing social-networking site Facebook as a main example, Stallman argues that in many cases the purpose of collecting data is to misuse it. Facebook is a largely unaccountable US corporation holding detailed information on over a quarter of the world’s population. Of the three billion people now online across the globe, 2.2 billion actively use Facebook.

On 17 March, it was revealed that a London-based political research firm called Cambridge Analytica had exploited data associated with 50 million Facebook profiles. The company had preyed on people’s prejudices, placing targeted propaganda and customised news stories on prime news feeds in order to influence perceptions, swing votes and ultimately manipulate the results of the referendum on leaving the EU in the UK and the last US and Nigerian presidential elections.

The data was obtained from Facebook users via a personality quiz. From 2007 to 2015, Facebook’s terms of service gave external apps access not just to people’s quiz answers but also to their profile information and the information of their friends on the site, including those who did not take the quiz. Although the use of data for political ends is morally bankrupt, the fact that it was collected appears, disturbingly, to have been considered fair play.

When Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg finally emerged on 21 March, presumably after days of panicked legal advising and PR strategising, he offered a lukewarm, shrewdly-worded Facebook post by way of apology. The angle he has been taking on the Cambridge Analytica story is that this was a “breach of trust” but not a data breach.

In 2004, an unfiltered Zuckerberg also expressed his incredulity and disdain at the ease with which the platform’s first few thousand users had divulged their details. “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me’. Dumb [expletive]s,” he said.

For many, the desire to be connected and the fear of missing out negate the privacy pitfalls entailed in having a Facebook account. Those who point out the very real dangers of social media often come across as spoilsport scaremongers or paranoid hikikomori. Somewhere in between the overexposed and untraceable are people who opt in selectively, perhaps by withholding personally identifiable information or swimming against the tide by not mistaking their profile for their diary.

No matter how you slice it, Facebook has ways of gauging every user’s interests, likes, dislikes, behaviour and tendencies. Facebook does not just learn from the status updates and comments you post: it also takes into consideration the words and thoughts you type but decide not to post, even brazenly publishing a study on such “self-censorship” in 2013. By recording when you stop scrolling through your newsfeed and how long it takes you to resume your activities online, Facebook can tell which posts you read even if you do not “like” or “share” them.

The term that has cropped up in media coverage of the Cambridge Analytica affair is “data-harvesting”. This is the extraction of potentially useful, previously unknown information and patterns from “big data” (large databases). UK author Steven Poole has explained the connotation of this agricultural metaphor: “if something is ‘harvested’, it must spring, like wheat, from a renewable source,” he comments, implying that as long as we sow information, the tech giants will reap it, and reap the profits from it.

Facebook is perpetually engaged in data-harvesting. Algorithms process information and carry out data-matching and profiling in order to accurately aim advertisements for products and “weaponised” political messages at us. Besides selling data to advertisers, Facebook’s algorithms create “filter bubbles” that ensure the automatic prioritisation of content we are expected to enjoy and “echo chambers” where we feel surrounded by like-minded individuals.

Echo chambers mean less diversity, understanding and tolerance and a more fragmented community. By customising news feeds to partisan tastes, information trenches are dug along the contours of bias, creating opposing tribes with extremes of opinion. Deliberately provocative content causes spikes in web traffic as stories get picked up both by those who passionately agree and those who vehemently disagree with them. The “outrage economy” is lucrative: there are substantial financial incentives for keeping everyone’s blood boiling.


NARROWING DEBATE: Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media in the UK, notes that “if everyone receives personalised messages, there is no public commons, just millions of private ones.

In addition to narrowing the scope of political debate, as research suggests that political election candidates are more likely to campaign on polarising “wedge” issues when the forum is not public, this diminishes accountability. “How do you hold anyone to account if there is no clear, single set of promises that everyone can see and understand,” Bartlett asks.

Even truth has become passé in the age of social media. In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year. “Post-truth” is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” the Dictionary said.

In this context, the prefix “post” takes on a less common meaning. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event, it is used here to indicate a time in which the specified concept (in this case, truth) has become unimportant or irrelevant. Coined in the early 1990s, “post-truth” has recently shifted from being a peripheral term to one that is used widely in mainstream media and political commentary.

Academics have long debated the usefulness of believing in, or pursuing, “truth”. Those who deem the notion of universal truth simplistic and restrictive have now turned to the refreshing possibility of there being multiple truths characterised by individualism and relativism, a key principle of post-modernism. It can therefore be argued that for as long as we have been post-modern, we have been laying the groundwork for a post-truth era.     

The significance of truth is certainly diminishing. Today, we are exposed to different information which we then interpret differently so everyone forms their own version of the truth. The resulting discrepancy between all of our different “realities” impedes our ability to determine which truths we agree on and points to the fact that our prioritisations of truth are out of sync.

Today’s infoglut means that the amount of facts and figures available to us is higher than ever before. The abundance of potentially inaccurate information increases the likelihood of encountering contradictory “facts” — particularly if statisticians and experts feel pressured to push a particular agenda when their research findings are intended to serve a particular social, economic or political purpose.

Consequently, popular trust in expert opinion has dropped worldwide, and many have grown to distrust much of what is presented as fact, particularly if it does not align with their worldview. If “factual” information fails to capture and create some semblance of common reality, it is impolitic to deem it factual at all.

As UK sociologist William Davies points out, we are “in the middle of a transition from a society of facts to a society of data. During this interim, confusion abounds surrounding the exact status of knowledge and numbers in public life, exacerbating the sense that truth itself is being abandoned.”

A consumerist shift in the values of journalism has also seen many news organisations prioritise clicks over content. Post-truth media struggles to feign concern over inaccuracies because as long as a news story is being shared it is “news”, and newspapers are now considered admirable for condemning claims which cite no evidence.

Fake news websites are gaining popularity as a source of information, but even well-intentioned journalism ironically bends the truth in its pursuit of fair reporting through false balance. Fuelled by a 24-hour news cycle and “information cascades,” the world’s new media disseminates polarising mis/dis-information, swiftly making it almost impossible for countervailing corrective information to keep pace with it.


US author Ralph Keyes claims that in the post-truth era the line between truth and lies is blurred. “At one time we had truth and lies. Now we have truth, lies, and statements that may not be true but we consider too benign to call false.” A culture of appeasing non-judgment, flexible ethics, the decline of community, the weaponisation of social media, and carefully curated self-presentation all encourage deception.

Under post-truthfulness, fantasy is disguised as fact and the foundation of trust underlying society is replaced with shaky suspicion.


CONSEQUENCES: Facebook has lost public trust and $75 billion since news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Zuckerberg has been summoned to testify before the US Congress, a UK select committee of parliament, and the European Parliament.

The #DeleteFacebook movement has been gaining traction and has even been championed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who sold his app to Facebook in 2014. However, as algorithms researcher Safiya Noble points out, “deleting individual Facebook accounts will not solve the total datafication of our lives.”

The giant corporations of the US and world technology industry are Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s holding company. They are often abbreviated as FAAMG, the “Frightful Five” of “big tech”. Dissatisfied with merely infiltrating all aspects of our digital lives and engaging in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, they are “positioning themselves to power the public infrastructure that keeps the world running,” according to Tim Simonite of the MIT Technology Review in the US.

The power dynamics of the Internet are being increasingly concentrated and centralised, making tech giants the new gatekeepers of the world’s information. They regularly control what we read and purchase and which ideas are seen and shared. The principle of Net neutrality, incidentally repealed in the US last December in relation to Internet service-providers (ISPs), at the moment secures the free and equal flow of lawful content on the Internet in most of the world. It should apply to both ISPs and tech companies.

FAAMG are the five most valuable US technology companies and the five most valuable public companies in the world of any kind. Achieving dominance by operating in areas that provide huge returns to scale, they have experienced astounding growth in recent years, and thanks to the network effect their products become more useful the more people use them.

In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica exposé, investors are dumping Facebook stocks, however, causing the company’s market value to plunge by around 13 per cent and demoting it to the seventh most-valuable company in the world.

On 20 March, Amazon surpassed Alphabet for the first time, and it now ranks second only to Apple. The resilience of Apple and Amazon compared to Facebook reflects the mood on Wall Street in the US: businesses that deal in actual products suddenly seem reassuringly solid and dependable.

Half of all online shopping searches in the US start on Amazon. The e-commerce giant’s stock has surged by 85 per cent over the past 12 months, a rise that has made founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos the world’s wealthiest person.

Bezos owns the Washington Post newspaper, and Amazon has acquired, Zappos and Whole Foods, a US grocery chain snapped up not just for its stores but also for its treasure-trove of shopper information and consumption habits, which further Amazon’s inconceivable comparative advantage. Amazon analyses all of the data it obtains through acquisitions in order to fine-tune its “upselling” (suggesting additional items to consumers) tactic and maximise sales.

Similarly, Facebook was motivated to purchase WhatsApp to fill in gaps in its own detailed tracery of social connections. By immediately breaking the promise not to link phone numbers to Facebook profiles as soon as the deal went through, the company’s true intentions became clear.

Google’s purchases of the YouTube, DoubleClick and Waze sites and Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram have eroded consumer privacy while bolstering big tech’s ability to establish barriers to entry for emerging rivals. FAAMG determine how successful start-ups can be and act as parasites to enrich themselves even when they do not come up with “the next big thing” first.

The five companies present start-ups that do not sell out with a “heads-we-win-tails-you-lose” proposition. When Snapchat turned down Facebook’s offer to purchase, Facebook copied Snapchat’s “stories” feature and rolled it out on Instagram and WhatsApp to make Snapchat redundant.

FAAMG also run cloud-storage, app stores, ad networks and venture firms that start-ups need to use to reach the public. For example, all of the films and televisions shows on Netflix across the world are stored in Amazon’s cloud servers so although both companies now produce original content, Netflix is dependent on a key competitor and pays for the use of its services.

To gain access to the mainstream market, application developers have to make their apps available in the Apple or Google app stores. When their apps are sold, Apple and Google take a 30 per cent commission. New apps and companies also use big tech’s social media platforms and search engines to advertise themselves.

Never before has an industry attained such prominence while getting away with so little regulation. Tech giants face insufficient scrutiny and seldom accept responsibility for how their platforms impact society.


BACKLASH: Tristan Harris, a former Google employee in the US turned whistleblower and hailed as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, is now urging software developers to tone down the addictive elements of their inventions.

He claims the big five companies use our humanity against us, knowing that we are vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed, obsessed or outraged, vulnerable to micro-targeted persuasion, and vulnerable to the expectation of being available to each other around-the-clock.

The backlash against the digital giants seen in many countries today is known as the “techlash”. It is seeing governments and regulating bodies worldwide call for investigations and hearings and tightening rules on data rights and online privacy.

Big technology firms are being asked to pay taxes more proportionate with their earnings, and they are also facing retribution for anti-competitive conduct: in October 2017, the European Commission handed Google an antitrust fine of €2.4 billion for abusing its dominance by illegally favouring its own price comparison service over others in Europe, for example.

The World-Wide Web turned 29 years old on 12 March, and the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, penned an open letter to mark the event in which he outlined some of his hopes and concerns. He said that 2018 was set to be a milestone year, as at some point we will cross the tipping point and more than half of the world’s population will be online. “How do we get the other half of the world connected,” he asked. “Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?”

It is high time the web lived up to its name by becoming truly world-wide. Everyone deserves the option to decide how plugged they are comfortable being, and disconnection should not come down to a lack of resources.

We need more equality in terms of global access to the Internet and information access on the Internet. The tech giants must be reined in. And instead of giving the users it has left the illusion of control by getting them caught up in the busywork of toggling around with privacy settings to determine what they show one another, Facebook must become more accountable and transparent about what it has been selling off to third parties for years.

The writer is founding director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.

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