The scandal surrounding how Facebook shared with a Cambridge psychologist, and his firm (Global Science Research) the personal information of 50 million users, without their explicit consent, has revealed a gruesome network of right-wing academic, political and business connections.
GSR’s data, mined in 2014, was sold on to the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica (CA). The company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports right wing causes, including Brexit. Its director and CEO is Alexander James Ashburner Nix. CA is affiliated to the much larger Strategic Communication Laboratories Group. SCL is not shy about claiming to be involved in very many electoral campaigns around the world and to be used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion, using what are called “psy ops” to provide insight into the thinking of the target audience.
Employees of CA have been filmed boasting of using manufactured sex scandals, fake news and dirty tricks to swing elections around the world.
A former contractor for CA, Christopher Wylie, says the firm used GSR data information to target US voters with personalised political advertisements based on their psychological profile.
On Sunday 25 March, whistle-blower Shahmir Sanni told the Observer that a digital services firm linked to Cambridge Analytica received a £625,000 payment from the pro-Brexit campaign organisation, BeLeave. The money came from Vote Leave, potentially violating referendum spending rules. Separately, around £3.4 millon was spent by different Brexit Leave campaigns with Canadian data firm AggregateIQ during the run up to the EU referendum; that firm is linked to Christopher Wylie.
It is unlikely that the #DeleteFacebook movement which emerged before the recent scandals, will be an effective form of protest beyond causing Mark Zuckerberg some concern over Facebook’s share prices. We’ve become so indifferent to a lack of privacy, so attuned to having our data mined and so uncritical of the plutocratic nature of bourgeois democracy.
We need an urgent public debate about democratising both politics and online platforms.