For years, people all over the world have exploited the ease of information and data transfer that has permeated nearly every aspect of society. Or should we say, the ease of information has exploited people all over the world. Companies like Facebook and Google have been known to sell personal information to advertisers for awhile now. But the selling of this personal data to political organizations like Cambridge Analytica is far beyond what many people expected. This week, we'll examine the implications of mass-data harvesting and how it can impact American foreign policy.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is spending much of this week on an apology tour of Capitol Hill. Much of the criticism which is being sent to Facebook and other similar companies is directed at the unauthorized sale and disclosure of people's personal profile information. Surely, almost nobody expects their Facebook information to remain completely closed off from the outside world. After all, the point of social media is for this information to be seen by as many people as possible. But further revelations of over 87 million profiles being given away without the express consent of their users is not what most people signed up for. So now Congress is finally grappling with the possibility of regulating social media companies and the ways in which they collect, sell, and remove personal information.
So what's the big problem with selling personal data? Well there are many assumptions that a person or company can make about you based on just a few pieces of data. This information is already being used to target advertisements for products you may want to buy. But now, this data is being used to custom tailor political advertisements to persuade you towards a certain political action. This isn't just tailoring a message for one broad group of people or another, these are ads designed to play on your worst fears and motivators to manipulate your thoughts and actions. Now you may be thinking, who cares right? It's all part of the political game. That may be true, but now consider the implications of this when a group outside the United States does it.
This is the essence of the concern regarding data as a political weapon. Russian infiltrators from the Internet Research Agency exploited this type of weapon as a means to sow chaos and anger within American politics. Even if you are skeptical that this happened or that it actually impacted the election, the fact remains that this type of vulnerability absolutely exists within the social media sphere. As more people get their news filtered through Facebook's confirmation bias algorithm, the possibility for exploitation is even greater. This is the true danger of "fake news." Completely baseless and unverified information spreads through the Internet much faster than the truth. Twitter campaigns by fake accounts can even amplify these stories, making them seem much more legitimate.
The implications of this are vast and terrifying. Fake or exaggerated stories about foreign conflicts and international crises can directly change the policies of the American government. When that happens, your opinions are essentially up for grabs by the highest bidder. Now of course, it's not quite as dire as this. After all, ads don't work all the time and many people have firm beliefs that can't be swayed by a simple video or meme. But translated across the entire country, and you can easily see how such targeted campaigns could wreak havoc if further refined. They could cause us to insult our allies, resent our own global hegemony, and even embrace old adversaries.
Fortunately, there are ways to take back control of your data. Facebook's privacy settings are being improved, and many of the exploitative social media loopholes are now being closed. But ultimately, the only true arbiter of your personal information is yourself. With these types of free services, you are not the customer, you are the product.