Social media is a complex danger

Image credit: PhotoMIX-Company

In the last three decades, the Internet has strongly affected data and information exchanges across the world. In this ongoing process, social networks play a key role in mass communication. Social media represents a valuable medium for staying informed and expressing opinions. It has also been argued that social media platforms helped spread freedom of speech in areas where political and social circumstances are quite critical. However, as is true for traditional media like newspapers and televisions, they have proven to be no safer or less likely to be controlled.

The recent scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (CA) offers an important opportunity to reflect on issues concerning social networks. Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm which combines data analysis and strategic communication, in order to sell information to those who want to influence public opinion. It is being investigated for claims that it exploited the powerful resources of Facebook to gather data for its research business. In the last few days, some more elements have come forth: Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized, CA profiles have been closed, and the famous social network is facing the hardest financial crisis of its story.

CA has argued that the users of the analysed profiles voluntarily granted their consent. I think this probably is true. Almost everyone who has used the Internet must have, at some point, come across little windows with microscopic scripts informing them of what they are offering in exchange for a service. It often happens when they access free wi-fi networks. They carelessly accept many conditions, without even reading, just for the sake of some free Internet. Contacts, chronologies, personal data, and other sensible information are provided to unknown third parts, of which most users are completely unaware.

This, of course, involves important privacy issues: the evolution of data exchange proceeds quite quickly, and the law-making process is generally far behind and unready to face such contradictions. And so it is in most countries. It seem acceptable, if you give your consent, but the reality is much more complex. Conditions should be flagged in a more comprehensible and evident way when we make use of online services. The current framework often helps those who offer certain kinds of services, rather than protect consumers and their privacy. The subtle way in which they legally get consumers’ consent is dangerous and grants very few warranties. 

There is thus a strong need to have up-to-date laws to protect users from serious threats – users who are now inadequately safeguarded by ineffective shields. The issue then is mainly political. But what happens when the political establishment is itself one of those who make use of sensible data to influence public opinion and grab electoral consent? It seems that information gathered through Facebook has been used by Cambridge Analytica to help Donald Trump and other US candidates to win. Fifty million American profiles were analysed, the most fragile electors were targeted, and their opinions directed through subtle messages. Trump’s donors and finance sponsors devolved huge amounts of money to Cambridge Analytica. Steve Bannon, the leader of Trump’s campaign, was a board member of CA. Although CA has claimed no involvement, speculation is now rife that the firm was similarly involved in the Brexit referendum.

This scenario brings serious concerns about our democratic institutions and processes. The impact of social media in our lives has proven to be powerful and dangerous, especially for issues like privacy. This has obvious large-scale implications: our private life is not only under control, but our public and political experiences are also susceptible to external influence. The impact of social networks at macro-level could potentially be devastating for the solidity of democratic regimes.

I am not suggesting the most pessimistic point of view, but it is undeniable that such issues must be monitored and analysed carefully. In the meantime, the common user of social network – and of the Internet in general – should pay more attention to what happens in virtual life. Nothing, it seems, is ever completely safe.

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