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Leader: The dark power of Facebook

For all its spiel about “connecting the world”, the social network is an advertising business that has prospered by harvesting our data.

For a demonstration of where power lies in Britain, consider this: Cambridge Analytica, the firm accused of improperly obtaining the data of 50 million Facebook users, agreed to let the social network “audit” its practices when the story broke. However, it demanded a warrant for the Information Commissioner’s Office – the body responsible for protecting British citizens’ data – to do the same.

In the face of multinational behemoths such as Facebook, which made $40bn in revenue in 2017, individual governments have found themselves to be almost powerless. Facebook has more than two billion users, and is free to access. As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” For all its spiel about “connecting the world”, Facebook is an advertising business, and it has prospered by offering to target users by age, location, interests and other variables.

The huge volumes of information that can be harvested from “likes” and browsing habits – and which Facebook supplements by purchasing consumer data such as credit reports – have disturbing implications. In November, Facebook agreed to turn off “multicultural affinity segments”: in other words, the ability to target by presumed race and ethnicity. It only did this after journalists at ProPublica revealed they had bought housing adverts “but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers”.

It is not hard to see how similar targeting could have an effect on political discourse. When inflammatory adverts appear on billboards, in newspapers and on mainstream television channels, there is at least a chance for the public to see them, and to complain. Online, such material may pass unnoticed outside the target group. Facebook has shown it cannot be trusted, and should ban political advertising.

The actions of Cambridge Analytica, as revealed by the Observer and Channel 4 News, are equally troublesome in their implications for democracy. The company contracted an academic to produce a personality test, and then harvested the information not only of those who took the test, but their friends. This was not a violation of Facebook’s terms of service at the time (similar methods were employed by the Obama campaign in 2012) and some of the more lurid reporting is overblown. A “data war machine” built by Cambridge Analytica is not responsible for the election of Donald Trump, or the Brexit vote. In fact, when filmed by Channel 4’s undercover reporters, the firm’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, claimed its methods for influencing elections were often old-fashioned and low-tech: honeytraps and framing opponents for corruption. If the company folds, it should blame its own hyped-up sales pitch.

The true scandal of the story is that our data is extraordinarily valuable – it has been called “the new oil” – and yet the trade in data is often invisible and barely regulated. The Information Commissioner’s Office is poorly funded and overly cautious in pursuing offenders. It should be given more money, and made to answer directly to parliament – as the National Audit Office does – rather than Whitehall.

It is dismaying to note that one of the few organisations with the clout and political will to stand up to the big tech companies is the European Union, which is bringing in tough new data regulations (and large fines to enforce them) in May. Britain will follow these regulations post-Brexit, but it will be poorly placed to contribute to any new, pan-European actions against the misuse of personal data. Our information is precious, and politicians are failing to protect it. 

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.