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.