It’s Facebook wot lost it? The social media giant’s stock have been sent plunging by a series of stories about the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Piling the pressure on both Facebook and the troubled consultancy firm is a Channel 4 exposé, which you can watch in full here, in which senior officials boast about their ability to influence elections and not only uncover, but manufacture dirt on political opponents.
The question is: how much of this is just bragging? In the wake of every campaign, there are always people who, either through their own self-promotion or that of others, try to claim that it was their technology, or their strategic insight, that led to the result going their way. And sometimes those claiming credit are telling the truth, and sometimes they aren’t.
What is true is that Cambridge Analytica has questions to answer, both about how it obtained information and how it used it. It’s also true that adverts can change minds. That’s the point after all. But it’s an old, old truth of campaigning that parties try to maximise the effectiveness of their message by cutting out people who won’t be interested in it. In doing so, they have turned to data – both their own and the stuff they buy from supermarket loyalty schemes and alike – to make sure that they aren’t advertising their shiny new childcare policy to a childless student or someone else similarly disinterested. Bluntly, none of the messages that Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have spread would have looked out of place in a British tabloid or Fox News. What is changing is the medium, not the message.
But there is something more worrying about present developments and it isn’t that they may have caused Brexit. As George Bernard Shaw once noted, a government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul. It may be that our increasing individualistic consumption of media makes it easier for a party to tell Paul it will rob Peter, and Peter it will rob Paul, with no consequence or accountability.