Cambridge Analytica Is Not The Most Important News: The Man and The Flea

Front page above the fold on a typical day at The New York Times: “Syria is Blamed in Gas Attack” right next to “Affected Users Say Facebook Betrayed Them”.

What Cambridge Analytica did or didn’t do (and I’ll come back to that) is not even close, not even in the same category, as what Syrians face every day right now. Yet the media (corporate and social) have spent more time agonizing about Mark Zuckerberg’s ignominy than Bashar al-Assad’s.

With our importuning wishes, we tire the gods, often with unworthy subjects. It seems the heavens are obliged to have an incessant eye on us. The most insignificant of the mortal race, for each step they take, every bagatelle, invokes Olympus and all its citizens, as if it were a matter of the Greeks and the Trojans.

An idiot was bitten on the shoulder by a flea, who had been living in the folds of the bed linen.

Hercules, the idiot cried, you should purge the heart of this hydra that returns with the spring. What are you doing, Jupiter, up there on your cloud too busy to get rid of this race of fleas and avenge my wrong?

To kill a flea, the fool wants to oblige the gods to deploy their lightning bolts and mace.

What did Cambridge Analytica do that has actually affected any of our lives? I’d love to hear your story, if there are specific personal damages you have suffered. Oh, and needless to say, I am asking for verifiable facts.

Sure, there’s any number of terrifying tales out there about privacy hacked to pieces and our personal data gone amok in the hands of the shadowy purveyors of fake news to change the course of world events. But, in fact, that has not happened. This article by Chris Kavanagh demystifies the Cambridge Analytica flea in the Wamsutas.

A few clarifying insights — yes, Cambridge Analytica likely illegally obtained extensive data about people’s profiles and use of Facebook. And that’s it. Did the Trump campaign use the data to target its campaign marketing? Maybe. So what? Obama’s first campaign was hailed as genius for its use of social media analytics. If we really think that Cambridge Analytica made the difference in the US election (or Brexit for that matter), then we are in denial. Has even one Trump voter come forward and said, “I was misled into voting for Trump. He wasn’t who I thought he was. It turns out I really liked Hillary, but I just didn’t vote for her.” No. What we hate about Trump is that he repeatedly gets away with being who he is. Openly. Brazenly. An asshole.

As for this business of Facebook’s betrayal — did we seriously sign up for Facebook and start posting all manner of personal business and think that somehow our privacy was simultaneously being preserved? Facebook is not a bank charged with providing us with a secure location to store our personal information. Why do we think Facebook exists? Is it Mark Zuckerberg’s altruistic heart that desires us to form deeper connections with each other? Or is it to create a social media experience so addictive that we explicitly and implicitly (that’s the important part) agree to be marketed to by the advertisers who make Facebook’s business model possible? Ding, ding, ding.

Back in the early 90’s, I had heated debates with fellow Master’s of Law students, in which I took the position that at some point in the future, national governments and the United Nations would be the secondary players on the world stage; that corporations would be where the true power resided. That time is now. There is a silver lining. While corporations at first glance may look unharnessed, in fact, our “votes” (aka our consumer choices) may have more potential to make a difference than the ballot box.

While we are calling for the lightning bolts and mace to be brought down on the hydra that is Facebook, there are pressing issues in the world that could use our attention; things that would be a better use of our collective resources. What corporations, for example, are supplying poison gas to the Syrian government? Where are they based? What other corporations are they connected to? Who enables them to do business?

Let’s stop wasting money, time and virtual ink on summoning the billionaire in the grey t-shirt to account for mishaps with the business model we’ve all been swooning over for the last decade. Instead, let’s address the complex new challenge of global governance.

This will require some deep thinking, collaborative action, and a willingness to suffer fleabites, without getting distracted from the pursuit of a bold vision for the future.

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