The activities of data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) have confirmed the worst fears about the misuse of personal data available on social media. It would have been difficult to believe till news broke that a researcher engaged by CA collected the personal data of 50-60 million US citizens from Facebook ahead of the 2016 presidential election through an innocuous quiz app, and used the data so collected to direct personalised campaigns in support of candidate Trump at these voters. Russian interference in the US election through hacking and social media was already known. It is a fearful prospect that large numbers of people could be manipulated to vote in a certain way in a democracy. Facebook is used by 2.2 billion people worldwide, 250 million of them in India. About a quarter of the US voters were targeted by CA. The Orwellian nightmare is coming true through the misuse of technology. It is not just politics but other aspects of life, like social relations, shopping habits, culture and choices in areas like education and health will all be affected by the new ghost that is haunting the online world.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologised and said that the company will cooperate
with the investigation and will be ready to accept necessary regulation. But what has happened is inherent in the business models of Facebook and other social media platforms which thrive on deployment of personal information at their command for advertisements, etc. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence would make the situation worse. The inability of the users to understand the contract provisions of social media sites was a factor in the CA affair. They could legally refuse permission for third-party applications but not even a minuscule number of them would have comprehended the complex jargon behind which social media sites hide their policies. Regulation is tricky in the case of media, but there is a need to think of the best steps to ensure that individual and collective choices, freedoms and matters like the security of the state are not imperilled.
The disclosures about CA have resulted in a slanging match in India with the BJP and the Congress making charges against each other. It is difficult to get proof of the charges, but it is known that social media is a part of the campaign strategies of the parties. The BJP used social media effectively in 2014, even if all that was said on WhatsApp was not verifiably true. The Congress and other parties are only catching up to the tricks of the trade now. India needs privacy and data protection laws for individuals and groups, and the CA affair is another wake-up call for action, and also for greater vigil on the part of social media users.