by Tan Wah Piow
The Singapore’s Straits Times published an editorial titled “Facing up to the ills of social media”. I wonder if this is an example of a “old kettle calling a new pot black”.
People in the West are incensed, and feel violated when news broke that the personal information of millions of Facebook users were culled by Cambridge Analytica and associated companies, and reportedly applied to influence the outcome of major elections in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.
This sense of outrage is not merely because personal data are abused for profits. Decades before Facebook, our banking details were already traded and sold to banks and credit card companies to grade our credit worthiness. No one raised an eyebrow. Likewise, the public do not raise moral objection, and even consent to prospective employers making checks on our criminal antecedents held in the police database. Objections, when raised, which were rare, were usually about accuracy, or its relevance given the passing of time. People acquiesce to those breaches of privacy because they accept them as necessary. There is also a degree of transparency, and procedural redress when things went wrong.
So what’s wrong this time when our personal taste, lifestyle, and political inclinations were obtained from Facebook to predict our voting intentions? Before Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s mining of big data, political parties in mature democracies collected data of the electorate voting patterns street by street, and outside polling stations. These data were painstakingly filed for use in future elections. This continues to be in practice, although the same data is now fed into powerful computers to aid targeted canvassing.
The concerns are not about data of Facebook users being commercially exploited. All Facebook users are deemed to have consented to Facebook sharing their data with third parties for commercial exploitation. The central issue, from the perspective of the UK Information Commissioner Office (ICO), is whether Cambridge Analytica had “illegally acquired the information of millions of Facebook users and used it to profile and target voters during political campaigns.” Hence the High Court warrant, the high profile raid of CA premises, and the current ongoing investigation. To be illegal, the transfer and exploitation of the data had to be executed without the consent of the users, and outside the remit of its permitted use.
The revelations of the whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica last week raised alarm, and certainly caused major embarrassment to the government, and their watchdogs in the UK, Europe and the United States. He exposes the impotence of the State in regulating the conduct of giants such as Facebook, whose financial muscles, technological and intellectual competence, and power derived through control of information far exceed the ability of the watchdogs to monitor them.
This incident is not merely a wake-up call to Governments in the West about the unfettered power of Facebook, it questions the legitimacy and ideological foundation of the democratic system of government in the West when elections no longer deliver a government by the people, but can be purchased by paying big bucks to companies practising the dark art of psychographics and dog whistling.
Incidentally, this not not a claim made by some looney left academics. The guru at the heart of Cambridge Anaytica, had at a “Online Marketing Rockstar” conference in Hamburg boasted that they had contributed to Trump election campaign success. There are also revelations in the Guardian “The Great British Brexit Robbery” (7.5.17) of how a Canadian psychographics firm with indirect connection to CA company received £3.5m doing work for the Leave EU campaign.
Interestingly after the high profile expose, people who were previously marketing the dark art are back peddling, quick to disown their earlier claims as mere marketing speeches to drum up business.
While governments in the West must be seen to stand up to Facebook, and protect the ideological foundation of the system, intellectuals in particular are outraged because they feel being abused, and betrayed by the trust they placed in Facebook as a force for good in democratizing cyberspace. What Cambridge Analytica did, as exposed by the whistle blower, was to use the digital information culled from Facebook to build psychographic profiles of individuals, identity the fears and bias of different social groups, and bombard them at a nano-level with information and misinformation with the aim of manufacturing political outrage against the opponents of their respective paymasters. Unlike conventional electioneering when claims made by politicians are publicised, and subject to close media scrutiny, selective nano targeting of individuals are not subject to public scrutiny, impossible to track.
One example was during the London Mayor election when Zac Goldsmith, son of the late billionaire James Goldsmith stood against Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate. Zac’s campaign subtly alluded to Sadiq Khan’s Islamic heritage when writing to Hindus and Sikhs to play on their religious bias against Muslims, and fear of Terrorism. Yet when writing to Tamils, he played on their concerns for their homeland by claiming that ‘as a government minister, Sadiq Khan did not use his position to speak about Sri Lanka or the concerns of the Tamil community in parliament, hence That charge, true to otherwise, had no relevance to Sadiq’s suitability as a London Mayor as he would be judged according to his policies for London.
The essence of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook saga is about the subversion of the democratic process through manipulation via social media. Unlike the West which has an aggressively independent media, Singapore has none. Hence the entire political process is already subverted by the ruling People’s Action Party, with or without subversion through the social media. That is the relevant political ill in Singapore which the Straits Times has failed to address in the past six decades.
In practising the dark art of subversion, the ruling party is well ahead of time! As a small city state, the government controls all the big data, analogue and digital otherwise. Whenever necessary, the ruling party would use the data to identify and destroy its opponents through legal and illegal means, without fear of being challenged in court, or be made accountable.
Over the past six decades, the big data were used to effect electoral boundary changes to undermine the efforts of an already weak opposition. With all the powerful tools for political control in its arsenal, and a cowed media to do its bidding wholesale, there is hardly any need, at this stage, for it to resort to the services of Cambridge Analytica. The State is Cambridge Analytica – par excellence.
As for citizen’s outrage over the abuse of their privacy, that was never heard of in Singapore. The people are brainwashed to accept that citizens are the property of the state. You owe them your existence.
For example, how many Singaporeans are aware that in the 1960s and 1970s one need to obtain a ‘Suitability Certificate’ for political clearance to be eligible for entry to study in tertiary education? I had always wondered how in those day they managed to compile the political profile of 18 year olds. Did the political grading come from the teachers, principals, or informers crawling in all dark corners?
The current controversy in the West about the abuse of personal data held in Facebook is a problem that can be managed by the State, and the collective efforts of countries. Individuals too can chose of opt out of social media.
In society such as Singapore where the institutions of the State are captured by the Dominant Party, there is no protection against the political abuse of personal data. This is the real political ill that Singaporeans must face up to, and not the abuse of the social media.