It seems an appropriate week to be talking about social media. Many advertisers and sponsors have suspended advertising on Facebook, and some big names have left twitter (they were banned to be fair) moving to it’s “anything goes” rival paler. What better week to share a review of Christopher Wylie’s book:
Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World.
Last week as I sat down to write a review I came across a great video on YouTube by Dan White , who kindly offered to share his review with subscribers of my mailing list (join the list to hear everything first). Dan provides unique and thought provoking book reviews and discussion. Enjoy the review.
The Book That Almost Made We Want to Delete Facebook
Facebook has become something of a monster in modern day society; what first started as a website for college students has fast become the most popular online space on the planet, with people of all ages posting content from all over the world, and although Facebook’s aim is to connect people and families there is a great deal more happening across the platform. Opinions are posted, stories are shared, and there’s no real way to filter any of it, some may argue it would be pointless to try and control this information, but can Facebook really be left alone? Couple this with the mass amounts of data the company holds on people, and you have a website in a great position of power, with next to no regulation and only arbitrary rules regarding what should and should not be posted, but Facebook is certainly not immune to scandals and no more is this made apparent in Christopher Wylie’s,
Mindf*ck — a book with an outlandish title, and one hell of a story regarding the abuse of personal data.
Facebook is like the habit you can’t kick. You try to remove it from your life and suddenly you may notice you’ve lost access to lots of other sites, that’s mainly because details on Facebook are actively used to sign up to websites so we can avoid the whole boring process of inputting personal data, take that way and it’s goodbye to those accounts — it’s like facing withdrawal. Let Facebook take control and you can sign up to a website in no time at all, but take away Facebook and suddenly you’ve lost the majority of access. Take Facebook away and suddenly you feel a little disconnected with the world, as if everyone is having a big party that you’re not invited to. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but with the world on Facebook, getting rid of it can make you feel isolated even if the reality is false.
I’m sure you noticed in the title for this very book review, I stated that this book made me want to delete Facebook from my life, and let me assure you that statement is true. I’ve been thinking about taking the plunge (as it were) for some time, and it still remains the case. For too long I’ve questioned the continued uses of Facebook in a time where it feels so powerful, imposing and in a great sense, unnecessary, at least on the surface. With past data being thrown around willy nilly, one has to ask what such a monopoly corporation is doing with it all. But as you may know, leaving a website that has its arms stretching out in all directions is no easy thing. For to solely walk out on Facebook in these modern times, that puts a wall up too many, many people, and no matter how much we may not like it, or even wish to believe it, with the world on Facebook, one person leaving is at a big disadvantage, particularly in the digital world. I’m making the point that Facebook is powerful, people rarely give it up, people rarely think about what Facebook is even doing, and for those who do go offline for good, certain connections taper off. Now with such power should come supervision, regulation, but in the view of Facebook this is far from the case. It is a business unique in its position, and so maybe after this book review you too, may feel a little less comfortable when scrolling through that infinite feed of content tailored. Just. For. You.
Christopher Wylie speaks of his difficulty growing up in a world not quite to his own mould. When younger he was treated differently, and felt a stranger to others for the fact he used a wheelchair to get around. He states it was this alienation that drove him to computers. Like most who excel in coding and computer sciences Wylie spent most of his younger years in front of a screen, this later developing him the skills needed to create a system of mass data harvesting and from such, the manipulation that followed. His later interest in politics combined with his keep aptitude for data landed him various jobs, including a brief stint with the Liberal Democrats party in the UK. Wylie finds himself working for a company called SCL and later a subsidiary known as Cambridge Analytica. It is here where he works on data harvesting products for various clients, and explains to the reader exactly what that means. No doubt you’ve heard of Cambridge Analytica, but no one really seems to know exactly what was going on between Facebook and this little known company, at least not in a concise understanding. There’s a reason Christopher Wylie is now permanently banned from Facebook.
In an age of nuclear bombs, tanks, fighter jets and god knows how many other war machines on this planet, you may wonder why the hell data is so important, and furthermore why it is important to people in countries of war and to people in countries of peace. That right there is what this book does a brilliant job of explaining, for it’s not the data itself that is important, it’s what people, and corporations do with it. In particular Cambridge Analytica went above and beyond the ways it harvested and used data for the benefits of it’s own investors, and interests. But why oh why is data so important I hear you ask? Some people may assume that scammers and wannabe criminals are the biggest threats, but that is far from the case. Let’s start first with how Cambridge Analytica even managed to get all that data in the first place. Well here my friends is the kicker, and one reason alone as to why you should read this book.
Not long ago at all, Facebook was able to share data without your consent, whenever you used a specific app that had been designed on the platform. And it gets worse than that. Imagine you never even used one of these apps. Let’s say you have a friend called James. Say James used that app, well Facebook would not only pull the data from James’ profile and send it to the app developers, but from every single one of his friend’s profiles, and if you’re his friend, then tough luck, because your data has been banked and shipped off for whatever use fits the purpose. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the data you input into Facebook is of a deeply personal nature, in some cases it could be used to identify you to a higher degree of accuracy than even your own parents. This is the world we find ourselves living in Christopher Wylie’s book, and the awful fact of the matter is that this book is not a fictional story. It is an account from a real person, who first hand saw these abuses and passed evidence on to prove it.
With such mass data
Cambridge Analytica began consulting with psychology professors and put together personality profiles that would identify people with specific personality traits. They would then release their digital arsenal and target these people in an effort to sway opinion. They expertly crafted fake news, false stories, communities, adverts, videos and targeted people across the globe to sway popular opinion of leaders, corporations or whoever was the highest bidder. With millions upon millions of data Cambridge analytica could fabricate a society and tweak it as they please. The implications are shocking, and this book goes on to take this notion of data manipulation further as to say that both the US Presidential election and Brexit vote were manipulated by the hand of Cambridge Analytica, feeding people false stories, sometimes subtle, other times not, and swaying there vote in a method far more effective than a simple leaflet through a letter box. And it is for this reason Wylie felt he had to tell this tale.
Bold claims from a bold book, that I certainly enjoyed reading, despite in parts how often unnerving it is. I must warn, there are some shocking statements within these pages, and ones that certainly warrant further investigation, but what this book does so well is explain the shocking ways in which your data can be used to create a virtual space in where you live. This space can be tweaked, can be bombarded with content to influence your decisions through psychological profiling. Articles are recommended to you that either support your points or perhaps seek to weaken them. And that’s scary, because how many times are you recommended something in a day? And how many times did you ask for it? Your virtual life and the content provided is churned out through a dozen algorithms and you may never know who or what is controlling them. And that there is the sickly horror of this tale.
So while we can all moan about Facebook and blissfully disregard the notion of data harvesting as boring and irrelevant, perhaps even the whole debate about regulation, upon reading this book it becomes abundantly clear that such topics are of the utmost importance. Ignorance is bliss until you realise you’ve been manipulated by more than just an advert displaying some clothes you quite fancy buying. People would not so easily pass the keys to their house around the local bar, but seem to be perfectly fine inputting all their information online perhaps because they assume it’s in good hands, but behind the scenes it’s been used to drum up fear and hatred for whatever cause has the highest bidder, and so this book plays out as more a work of horror than a piece of nonfiction, and how sad that is to type… Next time you’re told to sign up to any old thing, with details saved in any old place, stop and think exactly what it is you are revealing and to what you are giving, because I can certainly imagine you would never write a letter with a sizeable chunk of information, stamp your address, and post it off to a company perching on Mayfair, yet as time has passed little to nothing has changed online. Some people got a slap on the wrist but the machine keeps turning, and odds are, we’re all part of the oil that keeps it running.