Imagine if an agency came into your neighbourhood and starting inquiring about each person’s gender and race, religion and moral beliefs, political affiliations, social likes and dislikes, who every person’s friends were, what they talked about, and the most intimate details of their relationships with loved ones. Then, after gathering these data and having them analysed, the agency sold this information to businesses, foreign governments, anyone who may be interested in using it in any way they wished — with no questions asked.
Then, consider what would happen if some sinister players started using these data to incite violence, spread hatred or rig elections. They are provided with enough information at a granular level to identify, say, Hindus with extreme views, or Muslims who feel marginalised, or housewives unhappy with their marriage. These troublemakers are also able to send false information to groups. They could do this at a very low cost without having to disclose their identity or motivation.
Cuts Like a Knife
I am describing what Facebook makes possible. The UN has accused Facebook of playing a “determining role” in stirring up hatred and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. “It has substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public,” said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
Facebook also enabled data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire 50 million user profiles in the US and use these to reportedly help the Donald Trump US presidential election campaign spread misinformation. Facebook data may also have been used to influence the Brexit vote in Britain, as well as regional elections in India.
To be fair, Facebook isn’t scouting neighbourhoods for information, or knowingly supporting any malicious actions. It has automated tools ignorant of the consequences of their use.
We gain a lot from the global exchange of information that Facebook makes possible. It has brought loved ones closer and made the world a smaller place. But Facebook’s ability to recognise faces in photos more accurately than humans can is worrying. It can learn all about us from the comments we post, the news stories we read, and the pages we ‘like’. Even if we don’t tell Facebook where we were on a particular evening, or who our friends are, it can ‘see’ the photos other people have posted and learn what it needs.
Facebook also owns WhatsApp and harvests data from the app. Every text we send, every phone call we make is being used by Facebook to supplement its massive database of information about us. By using the sensors in our smartphones, WhatsApp can even keep track of our location and activity levels. It knows who we are meeting, where, and how long we have been with them. Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 could have only dreamt of having the information that Facebook has.
Facebook has become a huge part of public, civil and private life. UN investigator Yanghee Lee said about Myanmar, “…everything is done through Facebook,” but added, “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.”
Technology has given us many gifts. But it is increasingly being manipulated in ways intended to promote the makers’ profit over individual and collective well-being. The good of internet platforms are now being offset by flaws invisible to most users. Social media is being weaponised in the name of profit.
Filter Bubble Bursts
This is happening because Facebook and other internet platforms are consciously turning their users into addicts to make their products and advertising more valuable. They combine propaganda techniques initially developed by the British government in World War 1, with addiction strategies perfected by the gambling industry.
They provide value to the users while creating filter bubbles that reinforce pre-existing beliefs in ways that make those beliefs more extreme and inflexible, causing many users to reject new information and even facts.
This is why the Indian government needs to stringently regulate Facebook. France ordered WhatsApp to stop sharing user data with parent company Facebook. India must do the same. It must force Facebook to crack down on hate speech — with heavy fines for every single violation.
Not just Facebook’s, but all data must be protected. India must go further than Europe did with its General Data Protection Regulation, which requires companies to get unambiguous consent from users to collect data, to clearly disclose how personal data are being used, and to spell out why the data is being collected. It must also ban any form of political advertising and the sale of data to third parties.
This is not a matter of protectionism. It is about freedom and democracy itself. Technology is making amazing things possible. But it also has a dark side. We have to balance the risks with the rewards.