Euan McColm: Spare me your outrage, Facebook’s methods are as old as politics

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As I write this, I’ve a news website open, along the top of which is a clickable advert for Supro guitar amplifiers. On the right of the page is a second ad, this time a link to the sale of a fairly rare Bond Electraglide guitar.

There are two possible explanations for this. Either the makers of obscure amps and the seller of a guitar that went out of production in 1985 have huge advertising budgets and are bombarding everyone with campaigns costing astronomical sums or, because I have recently looked at these items online, they’ve been tailored specifically to me. The latter is, of course, the true explanation.

Those who struggle to comprehend how Donald Trump became president would like to believe that his voters were brainwashed. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Those who struggle to comprehend how Donald Trump became president would like to believe that his voters were brainwashed. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

READ MORE: Facebook: The brand that thumbed its nose at democracy

One could, I suppose, regard these adverts as evidence of a breach of my privacy. I carry out my late night browsing of guitar websites alone, after all. But, in the great scheme of things, it seems fairly harmless stuff.

Some, however, see this sort of thing as the thin end of a wedge-shaped minefield.

The scandal engulfing data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica will surely cement the views of those who fear the use of our personal information, either by shadowy forces of the imagination or by massive companies to whom internet users represent a huge market.

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Filmed by undercover reporters, Cambridge Analytica boss, Alexander Nix, explained ways in which the company could help politicians; methods included discrediting rivals through smear campaigns, orchestrating encounters with prostitutes, and offering and then filming the receipt of bribes. Nix has since been suspended by the company which protests its innocence of wrongdoing.

Aside from the sleazy – and entirely unacceptable – tactics suggested by Nix, the meat of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is in the way it gained access to and then used the personal information of 50 million people, the majority of whom are US citizens, during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Whether the company survives its current crisis remains to be seen, but the matter of our personal information being used by political parties – or anyone with an interest in our custom – is not going to go away.

It is, after all, nothing new.

Since the first candidate for the caveman council stood listening to a group at the campfire before leaning in and whispering, “You know that problem with the loincloths you’ve got? I think I can help you with that”, politicians have done whatever they can to better understand the ambitions and prejudices of the electorate. Ideologues might always insist that voters come to them, but the people who really succeed in politics are those who know which buttons to push with those who hold their fates in their hands.

Social media giant Facebook has become entangled in the scandal. After 270,000 people took part in an online quiz, the details of 50 million people were harvested through friend networks.

Cambridge Analytica denies it used this data while working for Donald Trump’s campaign. Regardless, there is considerable anger – especially among those who deplore Trump – about people’s details being used to create Facebook ads and stories designed to resonate with them.

This anger is problematic. I’m sure it suits some of those who despair at the election of Trump or victory for Leave in the EU referendum to believe that his supporters were manipulated to the point of brainwashing by shadowy forces, but the reality of targeted Facebook ads is that they are triggered by things an individual has publicly said he or she enjoys or supports. If you join pro-gun and white supremacist groups online, people might get ideas about the sort of person you might be.

It may be easier for the liberal mind to believe people were fooled than to accept they simply held a different opinion and knew exactly what they were doing when they backed Trump or voted for Brexit.

Facebook is ostensibly free, but, come on, we’re intelligent people; we know that a company doesn’t get to be so valuable by doing something for nothing. We sign up to social media – in the process giving our personal details – and then a great number of us go on to complete and share “fun” quizzes which determine what kind of chocolate bar we most resemble or who’s our favourite serial killer, in the process providing more detailed layers of information and clicking away the right to keep that private.

To Facebook, the user is the product. We give ourselves to them and they learn what they can about us. And that data is valuable, whether you’re selling loo rolls or trying to get an unhinged man-child into the White House.

Almost 15 years ago, the foundation of the SNP’s rise from the fringes to the top of Scottish politics was a new database that helped the party identify which voters might be vulnerable to their overtures. There was nothing sinister about this. People’s opinions were canvassed and then collated.

There may appear to be a considerable difference between a telephone conversation with a phone canvasser and the participation in an online quiz to determine your favourite flavour of Angel Delight but, if you look at the small print while you click through the latter, you will see they’re the same.

The demand exists right now for stricter regulation of those who buy and use our data. Perhaps some workable solution may be found. Given, however, that the internet has smashed apart sundry obscenity laws and enabled, with impunity, millions to illegally download films and music, the idea that this is an area that can be easily policed strikes me as optimistic.

Politicians now publicly disgusted by Cambridge Analytica will, if they have any sense, always want to know how the social media side of their operation might help them.

As Trump’s victory showed, Twitter and Facebook can be crucial to election results. That’s not going to change. As long as we sign up to social media, social media will wring from us whatever profit it can.

If you have a Facebook page and you’re still shouting about your privacy being breached, it’s time to shut up.