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Cambridge Analytica: The Etic Lab Take

We respond to Channel 4’s undercover expose on Cambridge Analytica – to what extent should we take their claims about the power of their computational propaganda operation at face value?

Recent revelations demonstrate how Facebook allowed the firm GSR to harvest personal data on individuals and their friends, who in turn handed it to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook, it is said, may initially have been misled, but failed to act responsibly to protect the data of 1 million British users and 70.6 million people in America. The data, it is suggested, was first used in the British EU referendum and then in the US during the 2016 presidential election [1]. Opinion in the media and wider public – although initially one of shock – is more likened to that of unsurprise. The reality for Facebook: stock shed nearly 7 percent [2].

Let’s take a look at Channel 4’s undercover expose…

… our commentary? In short: an unsurprising and unoriginal marketing exercise.

Jump to 10:50. I feel defining something as propaganda has become less and less important. Much more interesting is that people have started to believe they can be selective about which “facts” they deploy in support of their position. Donald Trump claimed Mexicans are rapists, Brexiters claimed there would be millions of pounds for the NHS. Neither of them have suffered for deploying blatant emotive propaganda.

Concerning Cambridge Analytica’s claims to the success of their predictive analytics, I’d say we are very sceptical about this on an individual level. You can change the behaviour of populations on a general level but to believe you can influence 1 million decisions with 1 million interventions is another matter entirely. I think what we are seeing here is the real work of Cambridge Analytica, rather than the technical claims that were seen amongst the hype last year [3].

In all honestly though, this seems like more marketing for Cambridge Analytica – which was also the impression I got last time they were in the news. The conneting story about Facebook also just seems to be confirming what we already suspected. Facebook is the best monitoring tool ever invented, and an obvious gold mine for governments and intelligence services. Facebook has always “permitted” 3rd party access to our data, we have seen behaviour like this before.

And as for the “long term and secretive relationship” this sounds like he knew he was being recorded and was taking the piss.

You can check whether your personal data was shared with Cambridge Analytica by going to a new help page on the site or searching for “How can I tell if my info was shared with Cambridge Analytica?” in Facebook’s help centre.

[1]  https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/10/cambridge-analytica-and-facebook-face-class-action-lawsuit

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/19/roger-mcnamee-facebook-is-losing-consumer-trust.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

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