«Democracy is that form of government in which, if an idiot says bullshit and you tell him it’s bullshit, that crap becomes, as if by magic, an opinion».
Ok, at this point you have certainly learned about the Facebook’s recent drop in the stock market, due to the scandal related to the investigation into the illegal use of data by Cambridge Analytica.
The question is much simpler than it appears in the sensational columns of online press: the British company has not *exactly* stolen users’ personal data. Here is what most likely happened:
- Cambridge Analytica created a poll on Facebook, one of those polls social media managers create every day, like «Find out which gluten-free food you would be if you were a former Republican parliamentarian»
- They asked you if they could take some data from your profile
- You said yes because you have nothing to hide, for Christ sake!
- They asked you if they could get a list of your friends
- You said yes – and at the time for Facebook it was not illegal to do so
- On the basis of psychometric analysis, they deduced that the user John Smith, being very fond of salted caramel doughnuts and hockey, votes Republican and is afraid that the illegal immigrants will take his job. On the other hand, user Mary Brown votes the Legal Marijuana Now Party because she likes Neruda’s poems and the Labradors.
- On this basis, the company created a big fat Excel sheet in which they put people’s political preferences («He will vote for Anthony Weiner»), fears («She fears the invasion of the Huns»), tastes («He craves saturated fats») and opinions («She claims that the Earth is trapezoidal»)
- Cambridge Analytica sent the document to Trump, getting some money in exchange
- Trump ran ads on Facebook and other sites around the web, telling John Smith that, if elected, Trump would have killed the illegal immigrants with his belt and given out tons of salted caramel doughnuts for free; then telling Mary Brown that, if elected, Trump would have legalized dope and given every Labrador on US soil a golden collar engraved with Neruda’s love poems
- Mary Brown and John Smith, looking carefully at these ads and making a complex evaluation of costs and benefits, decided to vote for Trump
- Trump won the election
- Holy shit
Now, of course Cambridge Analytica was nefarious because it didn’t explain to you how the names of your friends and your likes to Rihanna were going to be used. Of course Trump was nefarious because he was born that way. But the question can’t be as simple as that, can it?
Cambridge Analytica did – very quickly, thanks to a nice little program that they developed – a mechanical operation, like gathering useful information from Facebook users such as likes, comments, friends and contents. These data were then processed to pinpoint the topics that were relevant to each user in order to condition or steer his or her vote (for instance, if I were to influence Mary Brown’s vote, I would tell her that Trump loves Labradors as much as she does, while Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi hate them and sacrifice them secretly). In a few decades and with a very large Excel sheet, I could do it myself, BY HAND.
No, the problem is not the raid of personal data. The problem is that apparently Americans have decided for whom to vote on the basis of ads – highly personalized ads, no doubt – but still ads on Facebook. The problem is that people have decided for whom to vote by the same mental process they would use to buy fruit juice or toothpaste. The problem is that people’s voting decisions are based on fears, promises, personal conveniences, fake news, wrong theories, stupid ideas of all shapes and colors. Of course, it is the end of ideologies, this is the era of personal opinions, subjective evaluation and liquid politics. This age belongs to citizens and not political parties, because who better than a citizen from Wisconsin to decide on the foreign policy of a nuclear-enabled country? We knew it, and we welcomed it as a good thing, because we all wanted to send political parties, politicians and the whole bandwagon of representative democracy packing. We knew it, and that’s why you should stop looking for the thief of your personal data. Your personal data is nothing but a fat pile of shit, mostly consisting of Walt WhitBan quotes and photos of you eating cheap sushi in Albuquerque. Your personal data does not mean shit. You do not mean shit. You have nothing to protect, and you should only worry about keeping abreast of the news, studying, trying to have a deeper understanding of what or whom you are voting for. If you did this little exercise of humility and civic sense, they could come and steal your dog basket or Tinder password and still they would not be able to change or influence your political ideas. And democracy would be safe.