Cambridge Analytica: do we bother?

[Aliran published an edited version]

Cambridge Analytica appeared in the news before, but the name rose to household fame only recently. Let us track back some developments in reverse chronological order:

  • 20 Mar 2018. The Straits Times reports, “Malaysian politicians point fingers as Cambridge Analytica linked to 2013 polls”;
  • 19 Mar 2018. Channel 4 releases a series of films, including, “Cambridge Analytica uncovered: secret filming reveals election tricks” – among other countries, Malaysia was pronounced from the horse’s mouth loud, clear and unmistakable;
  • 17 Mar 2018. The New York Times reports, “How Trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of millions”, and The Observer of London reports, “Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach”;
  • 10 Apr 2017. The Malay Mail reports, “How Malaysian politicians use big data to profile you”;
  • 11 Dec 2015. The Guardian reports, “Ted Cruz using firm that harvested data on millions of unwitting Facebook users”.
  • 12 Nov 2015. Bloomberg reports, “Cruz-connected data miner aims to get inside U.S. voters’ heads.”

Who led to the grand revelation? There was a whistleblower, an insider, yes. The full manisfest, however, is the good job of Channel 4, New York Times and Guardian (Observer). This is good journalism and a joint effort for a good cause. The revelation is not of half-truths pieced together by opposition parties and supporters. Malaysians can take this as a cue to grow out of cheap social contents where everyone tries to set up a private publishing house through Facebook and WhatsApp without honouring the Journalist’s Creed.

Let us not talk about Rafizi, Mukhriz and Azrin in this article. Let us also put aside Mark Zuckerberg, Alexander Nix, Robert Mercer, Donald Trump, Steve Gannon and Christopher Wylie.

The question is: do Malaysians care? The element closest to heart is perhaps Facebook — not ethics. Now that a #deletefacebook movement is launched, many find themselves in the most awkward juncture. To delete or not to delete? (I’m going to lose not only my habitat but my very identity and being.) Deleting my Facebook account is nearly as offensive as deleting me, you know. Driven by self-righteousness which is en vogue, once deleted how am I going to advertise my act of righteousness? (I will no longer have Facebook to shout to the world how righteous I am.)

That’s how Facebookers entrap themselves — the very word Cambridge Analytica boasts as a strategy during Channel 4’s secret filming. Entrap is the word.

Many followed in horror, and disbelief, the counting of votes the day Trump emerged President. Many also shared that frantic scramble for the ‘undo’ button when the Brexit referendum delivered its no-turning-back verdict. Latest revelations suggest that Cambridge Analytica perhaps had a finger in doctoring and engineering both.

It’s akin to doping in Olympic games. At some point the consumption of performance-enhancing substances crosses a line. Which substances offend, which don’t? Let us look at the list of sins Cambridge Analytica are on the defensive:

  • the use of data without consent;
  • the use women and sex;
  • operating under fake identities;
  • psychological manipulation.

Note that only the first of the four is about technology.

The question is: do these bother the Malaysian voter?

The challenge to remain objective

Some find it ok if the data is used (although illegally) as part of a noble cause to save the country. The same patriotic Malaysians find it a grave corruption if the data is used by a corrupt party to stay in power.

And vice versa! Others find the data breach justified if it safeguards from harm those already serving the nation, unjustified if exploited to overthrow those already serving the nation.

See the symmetry? Sadly, this is how many Malaysians are. Most have lost all objectivity. We see angels and demons by labels we define, we can no longer judge issues by the issues. This is how we divide ourselves.

The same logic goes with the use of women, sex, lies and manipulative strategies. The same Malaysian individual can find the act forgivable if done by a party he identifies with, absolutely unforgivable if done by the rival.

A moment of openness

America’s Clinton-vs-Trump elections are done. Brexit’s leave-vs-stay referendum is done. We shall see what investigations ensue, and hope for the best outcome. U-turns are, however, the least likely.

That leaves many Americans and British feeling betrayed and cheated. For Malaysians, however, some are eagerly wanting to celebrate and to go viral on social media that their rival party is found guilty of dealing with Cambridge Analytica. This is how sad we are. We derive capital from somebody else’s vice (or perceived vice). We get so excited. We find it appealing.

Malaysia’s GE14 isn’t done yet, though. We have time. Can we put our foot down and tell all our politicians of all parties that we need manifestos and commitments of substance. We don’t need psychological tricks and games. Forget about swing states and targeted vulnerabilities, just tell the same story and make consistent pledges to all voters. Capitalise not on fear, but on realistic and balanced manifestos. Don’t tell us individuals will pay less tax, but inform us how taxes can be effectively channeled to benefit all — and before that, admit that this is no easy task. Don’t tell us individuals will get more, but lay out the strategies to close the rich-poor gap, and show us how the strategies take into account lessons learned from other countries.

Would the Cambridge Analytica fiasco be different to the Malaysian if the data was not from Facebook but from somewhere else? Or if it was by a company other than Cambridge Analytica?

We don’t need any psychological game and targeting strategy. That ‘everybody is doing it anyway’ does not justify.

Research funding and endeavours are better off spent studying and reflecting on the health and social services in the UK and Europe, the various stages of growth and challenges, and how Obama implemented his version, success and failures and how we can do better. Put Malaysia in the context of existing experience and knowledge so that we may do better without starting from the bottom.

Energy and funds can also be channeled to study elements missing from the Arab Spring that the hopes it offered finally led to failed promises — so much so that people in fact prefer the toppled regime. How can Malaysia do better? This could help our nation tremendously.

Is that data crunching all that magical and sophisticated? Let us get this right. It is the same technique movie databases suggest movies for you to watch next — also the same technique medical softwares automatically label internal organs on a patient scan. I crunch data too — I assure you there are data far more exciting than Invoke‘s.

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