Facebook crisis in context
Is the Cambridge Analytica scandal really all it is cracked up to be? Paul Demarty takes a closer look
There is no way to deny that it has been a bad week for Facebook - the world’s largest social network and one of the pre-eminent technology firms to be born this century.
The revelation that the Donald Trump campaign might have gotten hold of 50 million users’ data on the secondary market has triggered a great wave of media howling, but also regulatory action. The Federal Telecommunications Commission has announced a non-public investigation; something like $75 billion has been wiped off Facebook’s market capitalisation, with shares down from $180 to $150 or so, depending on the exact state of the news cycle. Some investors are even suing in California, which seems at the very least a little premature - perhaps redress might be sought if the FTC takes the opportunity to bludgeon a hated opponent of the White House’s current resident, however expertly its targeting mechanisms were exploited on the campaign trail (it would not be the first time this highly dubious agency acted in such a way).
At face value, the scandal is not enormously interesting. We have before us yet another attempt to delegitimise Donald Trump’s electoral victory by way of insinuations of foreign interference. The company at the heart of the allegations, Cambridge Analytica, is British; but there is a Russian connection, which is unsurprisingly being played up. That is the main melody - the counterpoint is the attempts by bourgeois society to cope with the wider cultural changes it associates with social media. The lasting import of the scandal is likely to focus more on the latter issue, although we will need to unpack the terms a little when we come to it.
As to the former, it will do us good to remember the conclusion drawn here: that the activities concerned played some role in Trump’s victory, or - in stronger versions - the decisive role.
To recap: it is alleged that, at some time in 2014, Cambridge Analytica obtained a large cache of Facebook user data concerning up to 50 million Americans from a Moldovan academic, Aleksandr Kogan (whose ‘Russian-sounding’ name no doubt accounts for a great deal of the salacious feel of the scandal, although CA has also been linked to the Russian foreign ministry on other matters). This data was used, in full accordance with the CA sales script, to ‘micro-target’ individuals for political advertising in a number of contests across the USA, and was then reanimated for the 2016 election cycle - first on behalf of Texas senator Ted Cruz in his failed bid for the Republican nomination, and then the Orangeman himself.
The Russian connections seem, to this writer, a little tenuous; but that is perhaps a moot point. American law is quite clear that all foreign interference in elections is a grave matter (with the exception of America’s rampant foreign interference in everybody else’s elections, of course). We have already got some evidence of British ‘interference’, thanks to Cambridge Analytica; we know, from the disclosures of CA whistleblower Chris Wylie, that there is an additional Canadian connection in the closely connected British Columbia firm, Aggregate IQ.
What we want to caution against is the image of groups of all-powerful svengalis manipulating things in the background: frankly, little we have heard about CA and AIQ commends them to us as internet-age Machievellis. Alexander Nix, chief executive of CA, comes across like - if we are honest - very many CEOs of purportedly world-changing start-ups. The playbook for young tech companies tells you to fake it till you make it; it may be that you do not yet have the tech to transform human activity X, but you have had the idea for it and that is the hard part; until the thing exists, there is merely the hustle of keeping the company alive and solvent by raising successive rounds of investment. In this process, the ‘vision thing’ - viz, lying through your teeth - looms large.
We worry that consumers of the mainstream media are taking Nix, as filmed undercover, at his word, so far as the devious genius of his political manipulation techniques is concerned; to such readers, we prescribe a few months working at an actual tech start-up, trying to cover for the absurd over-promising of the company leadership by creating some Potemkin village version of whatever the Big Idea is this week. Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix projects himself as Saruman the White, but is more of a Del Boy Trotter. As for Aggregate IQ, it appears that it accidentally published all its election rigging code on the public internet.1 Whoops!
So far as the real impact on US politics goes, US journalist Seth Abramson2 - responding to the AIQ code leak - makes the most worthwhile point that any of these things may prove solid enough for the FBI to charge some Trump underling with something relatively minor, in the hope of rolling them over into federal witnesses against the people that really matter. From that point, a legal coup starts to look a little more likely. A few indictments in the inner Trump circle would make a real difference - after all, who would trust Jared Kushner not to squeal, as the saying goes, like a pig in hot oil?
As to the presentation of all this highfalutin technology as Steve Bannon’s decisive weapon, we must express a little more scepticism. We cannot know with anything like the certainty presented by Wylie whether the skulduggery on display swung the election - it was very close, after all, and the help of all these digital geniuses seems not to have done Ted Cruz any good. But perhaps we should turn things around, and examine instead the eagerness with which mainstream media opinion - and much of the liberal, chattering-class milieu - has brought to the task of blaming Facebook for the world’s ills.
Addiction and ignorance
The mainstream critique of social media, as it has developed, is a contradictory thing - much of it is dishonest, but the dishonesty is typically in the form of ‘sins of omission’. A good part of what is advanced in its name is at least rooted in the truth.
So what is it that we speak of, when we speak of a social network? Not merely what it appears to be as such - a distributed computer application (that is, a program or set of programs that must be run on multiple, linked computer systems to be any use) that allows people to interact with each other ‘socially’, which after all was true of things like bulletin board systems, Usenet and internet relay chat over several decades. Such things were too inaccessible to the run-of-the-mill person, too nerd-centric; they had no mass appeal. If we are to talk of social networking as a mass-cultural form, we must think of such applications as standing in the same relationship to Facebook and co as Gregorian plainchant does to, say, Mozart’s Requiem; it is there in the DNA, so to speak, but is a very different thing in practice.
So the social networks proper are the ones that succeeded in appealing to J Random Computer User. There were many early contenders - Friends Reunited, Friendster, Make Out Club - with Myspace the first clear market leader, profiting for a time from the mass expansion of internet usage in the 2000s. Facebook and Twitter rapidly eclipsed most of their competitors at the end of that decade and, while there are younger competitors (and subsidiaries, like Facebook’s Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions), there is little doubt who is in charge.
The concern is over how this was done. A successful social network depends on taking advantage of the ‘network effect’ - which is another way of saying that its main use-value is having other people on it. If it does not, then there is precious little point signing up, for who are you going to socialise with? And it is not enough to just get people on it: they need to actually use it, otherwise why bother checking it? But actually driving things along to the point where user-base growth is self-sustaining requires aggressive marketing, which means you need money - which means you need to make money. You can charge a subscription fee, as Friends Reunited did, but you had probably forgotten about that website before I brought it up (admit it). So that pretty much leaves advertising as a revenue stream.
Advertising, however, redoubles the pressure to grow in the two aforementioned dimensions - reach (total user base) and engagement (average time spent on the app per user), since it is the user’s physical act of looking at the screen that is valuable to the advertisers. If that was not enough, the pursuit of venture capital investment (as initially engaged in by most companies of this type) introduces faces into the boardroom whose job is to scream at you constantly, grow, grow, grow!
So the techniques used to make all this happen cease rapidly to be innocent. Anxiety and low self-esteem - two of the many social ills frequently linked to habitual social media use - have the paradoxical effect of making the next endorphin hit more necessary. The frequently reported sense of Facebook containing only those of your school friends with sexier spouses, better behaved children and faster cars than you does not drive users away, but to even more usage. Social networks, no less than cigarettes, are designed for addiction, for pre-rational and compulsive consumption patterns; and they are designed to basically sell time-shares in that addiction to advertisers. Like evil twins of Aristotle, Facebook and Twitter understand that habit and quality of personality are closely linked, but use that knowledge to promote exactly what is animalistic (“brutish”, says my translation of the Ethics) instead of virtuous in people.
Addiction holds horror to the modern mind because it is antithetical to autonomy; and it is only one aspect under which social media appears out of control. Advertising on web platforms is pretty low-value stuff, compared to traditional streams, and the unique selling point is targeting - one of the salesworthy aspects of Facebook’s huge size is that the targeting opportunities are considerable. Very small fractions of the potential audience remain statistically significant. Nix and co claim that they were able to use this to their advantage (and Trump’s).
Beyond the basic categories, however - gender, age, home city - this can only be achieved using machine learning models of such vast complexity that the exact heuristics being used to do the targeting are simply incomprehensible even to the people who built them. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has refused to come to Britain to face the culture select committee, but some flunky will turn up, and he or she will be asked exactly how the targeting works, and the only honest answer is: ‘I don’t know, and neither does anyone else at Facebook, and no combination of people you could hire for that specific purpose could work it out either.’
This is why social media increasingly represents, in the mainstream liberal view, a great threat to civil society. Donald Trump is exactly the sort of president that such a media apparatus would throw up - he is an unashamed addict himself!
Yet we have gone into such great detail to demonstrate that - far from merely following ‘naturally’ from the development of technology, or even from a sort of Frankenstein-narrative of humanity’s relationship to technology, the deleterious effects of Facebook follow from its business model. And its business model is the same as that of its most trenchant critics, which are advertising-funded media outlets - die käufliche Presse, as Karl Kautsky liked to call it. Facebook is merely more efficient, its targeting mechanisms vastly more sophisticated than the ad-sale rep’s grasp of the demographics of his readers.
This is true also of other aspects of the story. The horror is, of course, not that people are routinely manipulated every moment of their waking lives to sell them more worthless shit, but that they are politically manipulated in order to game the electoral arithmetic. Indeed, the costs of political errors are much greater than the cost of a dodgy protein supplement or erectile dysfunction pill. Yet it was not the social networks that reduced bourgeois politics to a matter of tiny statistical margins to be calculated by Poindexters in the back rooms, but exactly the sort of mainstream politicians whose sense of entitlement is so mortally offended by the victory of Trump, the Brexiteers and so on.
They, too, manipulate; they too are primarily motivated by what will nudge them a fraction of a percent this way or that in the right constituencies, in total abstraction from what they actually plan to do in office. It turns out that Barack Obama also used a Facebook app to scrape the data of supporters’ friends - on the nod from the pro-Obama top bods at Facebook - to do exactly the same sort of targeted political advertising (although no doubt it was ‘nicer’). Yet really this stuff is as old as the conjunction of capitalism and universal suffrage: when the latter is forced on the beneficiaries of the former, only the most advanced available lies will do to keep the show on the road.
Trump, then, is exactly the president such people deserve - a man whose relationship to the truth is so blasé that they might almost occupy different universes. When media and political hacks blame Facebook for the rise of mendacious politics, it is the biggest lie of all; for, though we really must denounce the social networks as inherently corrupt and degrading, it is because they follow the mainstream media and politicians in their methods, not because they defy them, that they are so. The sound of Alexander Nix giving his sales pitch is the sound of chickens coming home to roost.
2. https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/978340681809883136 (and the thread of which it is a part).