Does Cambridge Analytica Herald the Rock-Bottom of Digital Dystopia?

Opinion: Or can the social internet be fixed?

You’re bored by the conversation, and you’d rather just get on with things and accept the unhappy reality - Credit by Ljupco/iStock

Tell the truth: You’re getting a bit bored of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story. You’d rather it was over and done with so you can stop feeling guilty or spooked (or both) every time you go on Facebook.

The saga continues to roll on. Every day seems to bring news of either another scandal or another new measure by the social media giant to modify its privacy functionality. The problem is that you don’t really believe the scandals are going to be adequately addressed, and you don’t really believe that the snooping, the privacy invasions and the mass-marketing of your personal details behind your back will stop.

You’ve seen #deletefacebook, but while you respect Elon Musk and his decision to close down the Tesla and SpaceX Facebook pages, it’s not something you can readily do because there’s too much reliance on the platform.

Facebook has also done some great things and, ultimately, you like Facebook. You don’t want it to be bad. So, you’re bored by the conversation, and you’d rather just get on with things and accept the unhappy reality.

From a democratic standpoint, the social internet is a failed state.

These social channels were supposed to give everyone a voice and transform our society. Instead, they have fundamentally failed to improve the quality of online conversation as vocal minorities swamp the debate, leaving us with self-defeating echo chambers.

They were supposed to empower citizens. Instead, we have been left powerless to act as nefarious third parties exploit the data we’ve handed over in return for participation.

But the thing about failed states is that the people within them still have to go on living their lives. And that’s why perhaps the emphasis of the public backlash should be less about #deletefacebook and more about the campaign for data democracy.

As Cambridge Analytica’s activities demonstrated, our data is us. It is the virtual realization of our real-world selves and, thus, it is high time we demand fundamental changes in the way that the governors of the social web behave toward it.

Data democracy isn’t just about voicing objection to rogue organizations that surreptitiously mine the details of everyone we know. It’s about recognizing the inequity of using hidden, biased algorithms to dictate how people perceive the world through the content they are shown, despite the content being fake news in many instances. It’s about recognizing the inequity of making it impossible for people, organizations, influencers and content creators to gain insight and perspective on the vast digital discussions they’re involved in unless they pay for it. It’s about the inequity of making it as difficult as possible for users to lock down their online profiles and prevent data from unwittingly seeping into the hands of others. The list goes on. It’s about recognizing the inequity of all of this and demanding something better.

There is, of course, the adage that if you’re not paying for something, then you become the product. But here’s the thing: People are perfectly willing to be the product if the terms of engagement are fair and democratic. There are all manners of insights that people will willingly share in the public domain, all of which can be scrutinized by advertisers, marketers, politicos and so on in their bid to better understand their audiences.

Data democracy means campaigning for safe quarters on the social internet, where people understand the terms of engagement and can make a genuine choice about what they want to see and what they want to share; who they want to interact with and who they don’t; and whose opinions they value and whose they dismiss.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal needs to be the tipping point—the point at which the public decides that enough is enough and that they can no longer sanction digital environments that steal and sell our data while perpetuating fake news, misinformation and a culture of sensationalism at the expense of intelligent discussion.

Tim Wilson is founder and CEO of advanced data-discussion platform Qutee.