By now you’ve probably heard all about Cambridge Analytica’s massive “harvest” of Facebook user data. This is a shock for some of us, but it really shouldn’t be. Facebook is, very much by design, a predatory technology. Merely by logging in, we grant the company an extraordinary amount of power over and insight into our lives. What’s missed in the hysterical coverage of this scandal is that the information harvested here was in fact freely given.
Freely given by people who can’t read an entire Terms of Service sheet, because nobody has that kind of time, which is very much by design.
As you can see, the entire system is broken from top to bottom. It’s so broken that it all seems like some trap that’s finally springing shut. We all spend time trading memes and other swill while Facebook turns a blind eye to shady ad buys that seek to subtly, but never quite overtly, change the nature of the political conversation in America.
As much as schadenfreude is kicking in right now, and as much as Zuck’s smug face might deserve some rearranging for all the long years he’s held human privacy in contempt, he’s far from the most important target here. His chief motivation in all this seems to be nothing more than profit, which makes him no different than any other corrupt businessman — just another sad little man with tiny dreams.
We’re going to have to have a serious conversation about the “stockholder profits first” mentality that rules America, since it seems to invite more confusion, obfuscation and abuse than it will ever manage to solve. Indeed, Facebook seems to have been so busy counting its money that nobody at all seems to have any idea how many of these so-called foreign agents purchased political ad buys in the first place.
If you need an outlet for your anger, don’t blame Zuck. He’s a parasitic fish attached to a very large shark. Instead, blame the political operatives and politicians who, year after year, get Silicon Valley’s sealed black box of tech wizardry to do more and more of their manipulation for them.
When Are Ads Not Ads? When They’re Psyops
The chief financier of Cambridge Analytica is not some Russian oligarch or Vladimir Putin himself — it is Robert Mercer. Mercer is a morbidly rich American who has ties to Steve Bannon in the U.S. and Nigel Farage in the U.K. — two figures whose stated mission, literally, is to throw a wrench into the very workings of international cooperation. Since 2010, Mercer has contributed almost $100 million to ultra-right-wing nonprofits and Republican candidates as well as information campaigns designed to convince voters that a world without government is in their best interests.
Mercer has made a grotesque amount of money over the years developing language processing techniques that eventually became instrumental in AI-powered election management strategies and messaging information operations. With Mercer’s financial and ideological support firmly in place, Cambridge Analytica has deployed these and other techniques over decades in the form of “psyops” in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. More recently, their brand of digital-psychological warfare was credited with the groundswell of public support for Brexit, as well as the election of Donald Trump.
You are going to hear Mercer’s name more and more frequently from here on out, just the same way names like “Soros” and “Koch” have become earworms for people who care about opportunity inequality and building a war-free world. Mercer is one of a tiny handful of people who have simultaneously worked their entire lives to build, and now spend their times profiting from, a world full of misinformed, angry voters trapped in self-fulfilling Orwellian techno-prisons. Mercer doesn’t necessarily share ideology with the GOP. He doesn’t necessarily even have an ideology. He’s rich enough to not have to bother.
The fact remains: Billionaire nihilists don’t need an ethos. They only need to be useful, and Mercer has proved endlessly useful for cruel and crooked politicians both here and abroad. His influence isn’t a result of our ghastly and broken electioneering system. He’s one of the people who chose to help break it in the first place.
Campaign Ads Aren’t the Proximate Problem — American Elections Are
Politicians in the U.K. don’t campaign for a year and a half for their highest offices. They’re not allowed to advertise on radio or television. Recent attempts to abolish the advertising ban, “American-style,” have failed. Maybe that’s because they understand better than we do what is required to become an informed citizen — and it’s not watching ads on TV or Facebook. The U.K. spends millions on its elections instead of America’s billions.
American politicians aren’t particularly motivated to change this system because they presently rely on it for job security and self-enrichment. You can count on one hand the number of mainstream U.S. Congress members who regularly use the phrase “campaign finance reform.”
Blaming Facebook for the dystopian Snowcrash-like hellscape American politics has become is a little like taking the revolver from your nightstand, plucking just one bullet from the chamber, putting the gun back in the drawer, and saying, “Behold! Now my child can’t possibly hurt himself with this gun!”
The buck doesn’t stop at Zuckerberg, or Facebook’s shareholders or politicians, either — they’re all just tools. The puppetmaster behind all this is literally just money and the eight higher mammals who’ve hoarded and now control virtually all of it. If you’re blaming Facebook, you’re fighting the battle instead of the war.
We can pretend all we like that slapping some reactionary regulations on Facebook will somehow save democracy before domestic and foreign oligarchs kill it for good. However, until we cut out the source of the cancer from the heart of our political and social lives, we’re not just looking at the end of representative democracy — we’re looking at the end of a habitable planet. Sorry to get so grim, but it’s the truth.
The inevitable endgame of capitalism-fueled politics is the concentration of power into the hands of a tiny minority of people. The inevitable consequence of that endgame is that profits and personal wealth will always come first — and the health of our citizens, our democracy and even our world’s climate will always come second.