Making waves this week on the streaming service Netflix is The Great Hack, a documentary on data research/ propaganda firm Cambridge Analytica.
The company supposedly targeted specific “persuadable” segments of the population and bombarded them with advertisements, articles, memes and other social media posts. These posts in turn swayed their opinion and changed their behavior on issues of national importance: Brexit, for instance, and the 2016 United States presidential race.
The posts popped up on each users’ feed alone, “miraculously confirming their prejudices, playing on their insecurities, magnifying and warping their worries,” said The Guardian.
How did Cambridge Analytica know who were malleable and who were not? It reportedly had some 5,000 data points for every single person that it had harvested from Facebook through seemingly innocuous information, posts, comments, likes and messages as well as answers to surveys—which millions of users willingly shared.
The documentary follows a professor who filed a lawsuit seeking to know how much information Cambridge Analytica had about him, an investigative journalist who first broke the story, and two former Cambridge Analytica employees who claim to have realized the error of their ways and the magnitude of what they have helped create.
One of the personalities mentioned in the film, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, claims to specialize in election campaigns in numerous countries, the most notable of which was in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013, where it successfully told young voters that it was cool not to vote. Nix was also connected with an affiliate organization, SCL Elections—Rappler reported he was in Manila in 2015 to deliver a talk and to meet with key members of the Duterte campaign. Insiders denied that a local company was an SCL office and that inked a deal with Nix. He was here for mere research, they told Rappler.
Beyond specific cases, at the heart of the conversation is how people reveal too much of themselves in the name of connectivity—not knowing where the information could go or how it can be used to persuade them to buy things, join political movements, or vote for or against a particular person.
Filipinos are known to be avid users of social media, taking delight in revealing things about themselves for their circles to see. Few are aware that once a piece of information is out there, it is difficult to control or know who has access to it and how it can be used. While we happily share away, our minds are conditioned and manipulated by those who know better and stand to profit from the information we volunteer.
Laws are still being crafted as technology evolves. Meanwhile, our best protection is to be circumspect about what we put out there, and to be rigorous in verifying information and our sources before allowing ourselves to be swayed.