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The ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and its Repercussions on Democracy

A San Francisco District Court document leaked on Thursday revealed a settlement of $725 million by Facebook’s parent company Meta in a class action lawsuit filed by Facebook users accusing the company of leaking private user data to third parties. According to the report, it is the “largest recovery ever achieved in a data privacy class action and the most Facebook has ever paid to resolve a private class action.”

Digital advertising, or ad tech, has been one of the biggest revolutions in advertising coming out of Web 2.0. Gone are the Mad Men-esque times when creatives with a flair for magic sold concepts over storyboards. Today, ads are sold by software engineers, system administrators, and data scientists. Stemming from the early days of Google, their approach to digital advertising and the reasoning behind collecting personal data that includes our beliefs, preferences, and behavioral patterns is to give users custom-tailored ads based on their needs. Algorithms help determine the content, timing, and audience for displaying ads. But this also creates a massive database of personal information that anybody can harvest with the right tools and code or buy from brokers. This user data, combined with algorithmic machine learning, can help understand the potential voter’s mindset, what attracts them, and what kind of communication at what time can help in influencing opinion. This becomes a goldmine for propagandists and agents that spread misinformation stemming from political motivations.

The biggest name that comes out among the parties that the data was leaked to is the British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. The company is infamously known for its involvement in the Trump campaign in the 2016 US Presidential election. Its former CEO, Alexander Nix, even went up to the extent of claiming that his company was why Trump won the election. The company used personal data harvested from Facebook for directing targeted political ads to the American voter base as well as designing campaign strategy based on voter profiles created from the user data that was taken. Cambridge Analytica has allegedly taken data from 87 million users without their consent. The Trump campaign is reported to have paid about 5.9 million dollars to Cambridge Analytica, with Trump’s Chief Strategist and campaign CEO Steve Bannon serving as the firm's vice president at one point. Shortly after the accusations, the firm disbanded.

Newly exposed documents suggest that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other employees at Facebook were aware of Cambridge Analytica’s role in the data privacy breach as early as 2017. Still, Zuckerberg decided to keep it out of the public eye. The Guardian and New York Times broke the story of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in 2018. This was when Zuckerberg claimed he was made aware of the company’s misuse of the leaked private data in a Congressional hearing when he was deposed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2019. It is believed by many that Zuckerberg may have misled the Congress of his knowledge about the extent to which Cambridge Analytica was involved. Facebook had earlier paid fines of up to $5 billion to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and had a $100 million settlement with the SEC in 2019.

Cambridge Analytica is known to have been involved in campaigns in other countries as well, which includes the 2016 Brexit Referendum in the UK, where many commentators believe the success of the Leave campaign came from the targeted advertising, psychological manipulation, and data mining by the firm. Similar allegations have been made in its involvement in the 2017 election in Kenya, which was smeared with misinformation campaigns that led to civil violence in the country. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), has also been claimed to have worked on multiple elections in India, with the former company instrumental in the Bihar Assembly elections in 2010, which the former top executives of the company have distanced themselves from now.

Renowned academic Shoshana Zuboff describes today as an age of ‘Surveillance Capitalism,’ which she defines as a “new economic order” and “an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above.” Data has become the new capital, and big tech companies like Facebook and Google constantly collect it now, not only to understand user behavior and consumption patterns but also to modify it. Our daily doomscrolling on social media, the countless clicks we make every day, and all our stories and status updates are priceless resources for platforms, advertisers, and now political actors who have become clients for these big tech companies.

The $725 million settlement is yet to be approved by the San Francisco court, with a judgment to be delivered in March 2023. If approved, it will be a landmark settlement in terms of resolution of data privacy infringement. The report suggests that other third-party clients have also been involved in Facebook data harvesting, with about 250 to 280 million users affected. While the settlement amount is less than two percent of Meta’s net worth, it would be a giant step towards platforms becoming more transparent about the data they collect from their users.

Social media platforms have become the primary source of news and entertainment and, with the degree of disintermediation increasing by the day, now a place for political communication. The use of automation and algorithmic targeting has dire significance on our everyday lives, especially when our data is in the hands of actors who could use it for their political motives, manipulating the psychology and mindset of the average citizen without them even realizing that it is happening. The misuse of our data is a severe threat to not just our privacy but to the democratic frameworks of countries across the world. It is essential that big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, masking themselves as harmless social media platforms and search engines, become more accountable to their users.

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Tags: Facebook Meta Donald Trump Shoshana Zuboff Cambridge Analytica Data Privacy Surveillance Capitalism Mark Zuckerberg Ad tech


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