For all the questions answered by the recent revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica’s alleged data harvesting — how the company got it, what they claimed to learn from it, how they claimed to use it, and how Facebook, which allowed Cambridge Analytica to do what it did, reacted — there is still one many people will have not heard. Namely: So what? Why does it matter so much that our data is being accessed, anyway?
A perpetual sticking point in the ongoing conversation about privacy is that, by and large, the only time people are aware that their personal information — or even their web browsing activity — has been monitored or harvested, is when they see a banner ad for a consumer product they either recently purchased or thought about purchasing. And for the most part, that kind of tracking appears to be utterly benign. Someone wants to sell me something I want? That seems… fine?
However, the same information that has been collected in order to target us with an advertisement has also been collected by other companies for uses we’re almost always unaware of. Advertising is just one facet of the data industrial complex that has erupted as the internet has become “social” — the modern era where people have voluntarily shared critical pieces of identifying information (birth dates, maiden names, high schools, pet names) in exchange for access to a stream of photos and updates from their friends and acquaintances.
Still, it’s difficult to make the mental leap between data nudging you into buying something, and it being used to tell you to vote one way or another. But here’s the thing about social media and searches that are based on the reams of personal data we constantly provide: it’s not that Facebook or Google tell us what to think; it’s that they suggest what we should think about.
This is an important distinction to make, because it means that if you’re following a news story, a fashion trend, a sports scandal, or a social movement, you might worry less that you’re being convinced one way another about any of them, and more that you’re thinking about them in the first place.
A comically terrifying example of this framework construction emerged in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Two Facebook groups were created by Russian operatives to appeal to Americans — one, a purported Texas Secessionist group called Heart of Texas broadly aimed at conservatives; the other, United Muslims of America, designed to appeal to liberals. At one point, both groups decided to hold rallies, and as it happened, those rallies were organized (by their Russian creators) to occur at roughly the same place and the same time in Houston.
Sure enough, members of the two Facebook groups showed up, and followers of the Heart of Texas group and the United Muslims of America faced off across Travis Street in Houston in late May, 2016. The Houston Chronicle reported at the time that Heart of Texas had even encouraged its members to bring firearms to the demonstration, and that one man did. Andrew Gomez brought along his AR-15. It had all the trappings of a protest and counterprotest. And it was — sort of.
The key is that neither of the two Facebook groups were explicitly focused on politics or political candidates. Instead, they were issues-based. As the Washington Post’s Casey Michel reported, over time, Heart of Texas, for example, gradually took on a far-right tone, “stressing Texas’s status as a ‘Christian state,’ or touting the Second Amendment as a ‘symbol of freedom… so we would forever be free from any tyranny.’ Some of the page’s contributors talked about the need to ‘keep Texas Texan.’” By the time Facebook took the page down, it had a quarter of a million followers.
And how would people come across a group like Heart of Texas? Most likely, the data did it. At some point, content from the group would have appeared on their screen. Whether it was shared by a friend or recommended in some other fashion, the platform prioritized it for some reason. Maybe Heart of Texas members had in the past expressed concern about Texas seceding, or immigration, or gun ownership in a post. Or maybe they liked when their friend did. Maybe their search history eventually brought the group higher up in the results.
Or maybe it was something else, perhaps an aspect of their profile derived entirely by an algorithmic computation — an opaque conclusion drawn from a thousand data points. As researcher and frequent New York Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci explained recently, the information that’s used to determine what you see around you, including on Facebook, comes from all kinds of places. “Every status update you ever typed, every Messenger conversation, every place you logged in from, all your photographs that you uploaded there. If you start typing something and change your mind and delete it, Facebook keeps those and analyzes them, too,” she told a TED audience in September. “Increasingly, it tries to match you with your offline data” — the kind it can acquire from private firms that collect information about your purchases or other activity in the real world.
Was each of those quarter million members of Heart of Texas concerned with Texas secession? It’s doubtful. But, when presented with the concept, did it open cognitive space for related ideas — about borders or immigration or basic nationalism — to occupy? It sure seems like it! Enough, anyway, for some of them to literally take to the streets in their defence. Heart of Texas might never have explicitly told its members to vote for Donald Trump, or even for the Republican party. Instead, it told people what to think about — issues that would deepen the political divide and drive people to extremes.
All of this is based on data, as well as programs that use that data to optimize engagement — either to make sure we keep watching videos on YouTube, or that we’re liking more posts on Facebook, or that we’re searching more things on Google. The programs quickly learn about what we enjoy and what our friends enjoy, what makes us angry or happy — in short, what keeps us looking at the screen.
Before too long, that data has brought us to a fake rally organized by Russian trolls, but which we are convinced is about defending democracy. This is part of the reason why your data matters. Today, it’s being used to sell you a shirt; tomorrow, it’s making you wear something a bit less comfortable.