The company Cambridge Analytica is at the heart of the latest frenzy over privacy, fake news, and the perils of Facebook. Mainstream liberal media has been quick to frame this as a story about how new technologies and social networks are shaking up the democratic political system. But they are missing the point; this is a story about social inequality and political corruption in liberal democracies.
According to investigative reports from the New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, and Channel 4 News, the London-based company Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have hired ex-spies and sex workers, infiltrated the accounts of 50million Facebook users, and spread fake news using social media, meticulously covering up its paper trail. These methods were then supposedly used in election campaigns worldwide, including Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. While going to great lengths to hide their digital breadcrumbs, Cambridge Analytica made headlines due to a very human factor, straight out of a pre-internet mystery novel: their employees boasted about the company’s shady methods to undercover investigative journalists posing as potential clients from Sri Lanka.
British and American media have focused on how the personal data of 50million Facebook users fell into the hands of Cambridge Analytica spin-doctors. The hashtag #deleteFacebook is trending on Twitter and becoming its own newsbreak, with celebrities chiming in. Major news outlets have provided how-to guides on deactivating your Facebook account, and are posing questions like “Is this the end for the world’s most powerful social network?”
However, this is not the question we should be asking. It’s distracting us from more unsettling questions about polarisation in British and American society.
The #deleteFacebook movement is based on two major critiques of social media and internet companies. First, social media companies and third parties use our personal data without our explicit informed consent. Second, social media companies and third parties enable the spread of fake news for political purposes. The latter critique stems from the assumption that if people had only known the “truth”, they would have acted or voted differently. This idea is extremely problematic.
Many members of British and American “polite society” (the educated classes that take pride in critical thinking) have been eager from the very start to blame Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote on fake news made possible by social media. The Cambridge Analytica controversy seems to confirm such fears. But, as I argue in my piece for Q&A platform TheQuestion, things are not so simple in societies that face rising levels of inequality. We should be critically examining media consumption, audience reception, and class divisions - as well as dynamics of race, gender, age, and religion.
What do we actually know about the outcomes of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook accounts? How do companies like Facebook affect people’s political behaviour? How do we know that a Facebook user who saw a “Crooked Hillary” video in their newsfeed voted for Trump because of the video, and not because they have been unemployed for over a year, cannot pay their mortgage, and don’t trust the political establishment in Washington? Is it so difficult to imagine that someone voted for Trump not because they believed the “fakes” underpinning his campaign, but because they simply don’t care about Clinton’s elite “truth” when she cites accurate statistics during debates? We also cannot definitively say that if people had received “true” information ahead of the Brexit referendum, they would have voted to remain in the EU thanks to this knowledge. Maybe Cambridge Analytica has data that could shed light on how audiences changed their behaviours in response to various messages, but independent researchers have not analysed this data yet.
Like many sociologists of the media, I am dismayed at the naïve and nostalgic public debates surrounding new technologies, “fake news”, and “post-truth”. At last week’s conference and teach-out “The Post-Truth Phenomenon”, convened at the University of Cambridge by Ella McPherson, Devika Ranjan, and Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra, academics came together to move past uncritical blaming of new technologies. Eva Giraud suggested we must consider how values are pushing people to engage with the world in a certain way, not their lack of knowledge. John Naughton, drawing on his “Conspiracy and Democracy” research project, suggested that instead of focusing on new technologies, we should be scrutinising the business models of companies like Facebook that depend on user engagement with their services and offer free platforms in return for personal information. Naughton also called for reflecting on longer-term disaffection with liberal democracy as it is currently practiced. Alfred Moore noted that one of the components of such disaffection is loss of trust in experts, and as a result authority is relocating to new institutions we have not yet fully understood.
In my view, focusing on “fakes” and on the moral and ethical standards of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is distracting us from two major parts of this unfolding story: first, systemic social divides, and second, corruption among political elites.
The dimension of social divides has been articulated by John Naughton: claiming that distribution of “true” information or spread of media literacy will solve the problems faced by liberal democracies negates the experiences of people who have been hit by deindustrialisation and globalisation. Perhaps, instead of concentrating on fake news, we should be analysing the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, why populism is on the rise, and how class interests shape our standards for what truth and authority entail.
I also believe that corruption is a factor that merits consideration in every social and political situation. When we think of the political orders of Western liberal democracies, corruption often ends up beyond our view, usually reserved for countries like Russia. Yet corruption among political elites was the part of the Channel 4 News investigation that stood out to me most: Cambridge Analytica was apparently successful in using bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians, spreading information through proxy organisations, and violating US election rules by coordinating with the super-PAC funded by Mercer family donors. Cambridge Analytica does not exist in a vacuum, their clients are parties and politicians who are involved in bribery and complex systems of patronage. As voters, we must hold them accountable, but our obsession with new technologies is distracting us from this task. Journalists, scholars, activists, and civil society could do more to locate agency within the state and to call out politicians who cross the line.
Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, for all their questionable practices, are not the problem. Members of “polite society” can #deleteFacebook in an attempt to push back against surveillance capitalism, and this may indeed be a noble endeavour. But it can have political effects only in the event that people take their eyes off their screens and turn towards the social problems faced by their fellow citizens, and towards the corruption of their political elites - including those elites “polite society” has claimed as their own.
Earlier versions of this post appeared on TheQuestion: