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Data and the delusion of democracy?

The recent exposé of Cambridge Analytica, a fast-rising British analytics company and their practice on political manipulation has created grave concerns over ethics. An article published by The Guardian uncovered details on how Cambridge Analytica hijacked at least 50 million Facebook profiles using apps that could crawl and capture the details of a person and their friends in the background for political experiments.

To be honest, a lot of the ‘theories’ spoken by Christopher Wylie (former Data Scientist), Alexander Nix (CEO) and Mark Turnbull (MD) of the company have become true practice for commercial usage. We analyse vast amount of data to create audience segments with specific personas. We will know what each of them like, dislike and then send out appropriate messages at the right time, right place that have the highest chance of receptivity.

So when the news broke, I was stumped and obviously disgusted considering Cambridge Analytica is most likely commissioned by the richer but weaker parties to run their political campaigns, using the very same practice that we have been evangelizing for a good few years – even before mass personalization at scale was truly feasible.

But when I researched further into the practice of this political consultancy, I realised that what we normally do in commercial practice is positive targeting.

I will not defend the practice just because I understand it as I believe there can only be great improvement in customer and brand experience when it is designed with data in mind. But at the same time, there’s no disagreeing on the grey matter in the room which is perception manipulation.

Honestly, I’d like to hear from the marketers themselves who in this case are also political voters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Because the dark side of data has finally yield its head. There’s no denying that while the exposé on Cambridge Analytica campaigns is rather extreme as compared to selling chocolate drinks to different kinds of moms, which pales in comparison – nevertheless the principle remains the same.

So instead of the world calling out for political ethics, we should instead be crying out for data ethics because we all know there’s no such thing as ethics in politics. But data ethics encompasses a much larger picture because it needs to protect the people from false manipulation. The internet is not evil, at least depending on who’s using it for what purpose. Likewise, data is not evil. It is how we use data that really matters. Without some kind of regulation by oneself or an independent group, the crux of the matter will not resolve itself.

Since this exposé, I’m sure everyone has the same thoughts in their head so let’s just call out the elephant in the room. Are we also guilty as charged for commercial usage? Where do we draw the line between using data to inform better experience and for perception manipulation? I recalled the interview between The Guardian and Christopher Wiley, data scientist of Cambridge Analytica – the interviewer asked, “Did you realise what you were doing?” to which he replied, “I couldn’t know, we were just so focused on getting the data”.

So if you ask me, I think there is a huge difference between exercising this practice for commercial advantage and for political exploitation. Cambridge Analytica has openly identified its involvement in Malaysia’s 2013 elections and is rumoured to be reengaged this year.

With this kind of sensational discovery, naturally everyone puts on their little Sherlock hat and that includes myself. Last website check, they confirmed a branch in Malaysia which strangely points to a residential address in Kota Damansara. This could have been my neighbour.

The elite now, might be more attentive in differentiating the fake from the truth but can the mass who have no idea on what’s happening be able to discern these fabrications? Can we ever outsmart data or at least the manipulators?

God save Malaysia.

Sue-Anne Lim is an independent strategy consultant 

This article first appeared in MARKETING magazine issue 219. You can view the online version of the magazine here.

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