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The American Spring: How Facebook and the NRA Broke America

Nigel Morris-Co...

It's the American dream: little lonely kid with only a handful of people who appear to like him talks with one or two of them and they come up with a geeky idea : let's put our college yearbook (a curiously American thing) into a database and let everyone in it tell everyone in it what they are doing, and let them read what everyone else is doing. Then, as the others, one by one, find out that the reason he's the little lonely kid is that he's a sociopathic egotistical self-absorbed autocrat, he ends up alone and somehow sitting on something that generates thousands of millions of dollars in share value. Then someone spills the saucer full of secrets and Americans are shocked out of their stupor and they don't like it.

The rivets are creaking in the ship of state not because politicians are leading the charge but because they have found that "the internet" can be used to subvert the political process, that their carefully protected pots of loot from donors can be undermined by mined data and the careful targeting of results.

Let's be clear: Cambridge Analytica did nothing new: Tony Blair and Barack Obama both swept to power on the back of carefully targeted marketing based on a social attitudes survey first produced more than 50 years ago and kept up to date by door to door and telephone interviews ever since. It's so accurate that, in the late 1990s, the same underlying dataset that put Tony Blair in power was used to build a different algorithm to identify individual streets that can be targeted to identify the brand of washing powder samples that should be put through the doors to achieve maximum conversion rate.

It was the how, not the what, that has caused the problem (and the surprising fact that this manipulation is only now coming to light) and the fact that Facebook was a willing (if ignorant, if Zuckerberg etc. can be believed and his history of telling the truth is, to be charitable, chequered) participant in the scheme that is causing politicians problems today. And the fact that they've been found out: it's ironic to think that, in some ways, the investigation of Facebook in relation to political manipulation is, as in the late, lamented US TV series "The Practice," a "Plan B" - in which a third party is introduced as a possible suspect to divert attention from the case against the defendant.

But none of that undermines the core argument that Facebook has long applied terms of business which are diametrically opposed to the principle of individual privacy. That, in the USA, is a relative term and some places, most notably California, have tried to secure some form of data protection but it fails because companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft include non-severable clauses in their user agreements that say, in terms, "we own anything you put onto our platform and we can do anything we like with it, anytime we like, in return for anything we like." Whatever they may say in their so-called "privacy control settings," that base position is not revoked. They do not say "if you want to vary our terms, select here what we can do and if you don't select it, we're not allowed to do it." For example, Microsoft's LinkedIn frequently changes its non-privacy terms and when it does so, it usually sets defaults to allow, instead of deny, knowing full well that many people won't understand the importance of an email that says "we have updated our terms. Click here to accept."

So, as companies now realise that their reputations are at stake if they sell guns or advertise on dodgy social media, the centre is making a come-back. The American Spring is here: the main hope is that it make a difference before it's sprung and the well-funded pressure groups gain the upper hand in the very media that the masses are now turning against and, in doing so, use that social media as a weapon just as Cambridge Analytica did, but more like a shotgun than like a rifle.

It is the ultimate irony that the leftist, supposedly liberal, groups that grew out of protests such as those against the Vietnam War may be the ones to defeat the growth of demands for freedoms for individuals against the giant corporations, political patronage and propaganda will, probably, be the very groups that stand in the way of today's version of their formative selves, groups that now campaign by hashtag will hamper those who campaign in the old ways of boycott and peaceful rallies not pitched battles. It's ironic that those older groups will, in order to keep their own interests alive, have to create disharmony and disunity amongst what is, at present, the most unified mass of disparate people that the USA has seen for half a century.

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