How Cambridge Analytica led to weaponisation of social media platforms

Before the social media platforms were weaponised by political parties and their leaders, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was once asked if users’ data on his platform was at risk. He unambiguously had said ‘No’, adding that there was no way the data of his users could be breached or “improperly shared” on a large scale.

The massive Cambridge Analytica data scandal proved him wrong.

The Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” revealed the sordid tale of UK-based and now defunct political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica and its role in swaying US voters in the 2016 Presidential elections, which brought Donald Trump to power via illegally accessing data of 87 million Facebook users.

It was two whistleblowers from Cambridge Analytica — Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie — who blew the lid off the dark secrets of their CEO Alexander Nix.

Cambridge Analytica had 5,000 data points on every American — invisible information that was not visible to anyone except the data scientists at the firm.

Wylie, 24, served as research director at Cambridge Analytica for a year-and-a-half and saw closely how the firm combined psychological research with private Facebook data of 87 million users to make an invisible weapon with the power to change what the US voters perceived as real in the 2016 presidential elections with Russian intrusion.

And when Britain shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union (EU), Wylie realised it was time to expose the associates.

“The story of Cambridge Analytica shows how our identities and behaviour have become commodities in the high-stake data trade, the companies that control the flow of information are among the most powerful in the world, the algorithms they have designed in secret are shaping minds in ways previously unimaginable,” says Wylie.

The documentary touches upon the biggest fear of our lives: Social media platforms created to connect us have been weaponised and are being widely used to influence free and fair elections around the world, including in India.

India — with nearly 500 million WhatsApp users, another over 300 million on Facebook and millions others on various social media platforms — has also been affected by this global data colonisation exercise.

We have seen how targeted campaigns reach voters during elections via various platforms and how fake news spreads like a wildfire via WhatsApp.

Political parties have gone 24×7 on creating election-special content like issue-based memes, jokes, GIFs and short-format videos to bombard various social media platforms and woo millions of voters.

“Some political parties have appointed social media ‘warriors’ to reach out to the public on digital platforms. They are working round-the-clock as political content aggregators, preparing fiery content for social media trollers,” according to social media expert Anoop Mishra.

According to Mishra, political parties know that the more they send fake and misleading content to the public during elections, the more viral it will become.

“The more viral the fake content becomes, the more it will serve its purpose. Most people do not check the genuineness of the content while forwarding it,” he noted.

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