In the wake of Facebook scandal, the story of 19 year old Mark Zuckerbarg describing Harvard students who gave him their details as dumb were repeatedly written by analysts, writers and opinion columnists.
But the students weren’t stupid as the bragging teenager supposed. The author of the best selling “Hello World” argued that they trust the algorithm lord with their information as part of exchange to return them with free service to connect with family and meet new friends. Otherwise the world, as of 2019, would be filled with 2.5 billion active, verified rattlebrained scholars, presidents, philosophers and the Harvard professors on Facebook.
Many people wouldn’t know that there is always a price to pay for this “free service” before the reality revealed itself after Cambridge Analytica harvested personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent and used it for political purposes. Back in the university when I was introduced to Social Media class, I repeatedly asked myself what companies like 2go, Facebook and WhatsApp are benefiting by giving us free platform to connect with friends? The answer we all found later became a shocking reality.
You might have read about Cambridge Analytica, a data brokering company that buys (?) data, analyze it, and use it for several purposes including political advertisements and manipulations. The company is not the only company doing the [il]legitimate business, there are hundreds of them including the Palantir Technologies, the most successful startups at the Silicon Valley, that specializes in big data analytics and trades in the information of internet users. Handfuls of other companies known as “data brokers” include Corelogic, Datalogix and eBureau. You might have never heard about these companies, with the exception of Cambridge Analytica, but they know about you more than you know about yourself; from the type of food you order on Jumia, type of films you watch on Netflix, music you listen to on SoundCloud, up to your crush celebrity on Instagram.
Tactical Tech, an international NGO exploring and mitigating the impacts of technology on society, found over 300 companies around the world who promise to “power democracy” by supporting politicians and political parties to “win election with social intelligence” through “emotions driven by data”. We have seen the work of Cambridge Analytica not only in Nigeria but in some countries around Africa. In Kenya for example, the company managed “every element” of president Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaign in 2017. The election was characterized by disinformation and manipulation of voters mainly through Facebook and WhatsApp. In Nigeria, the company worked with the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan in producing a short video against the President Muhammadu Buhari and his party. It was alleged that the company didn’t stop there but moved to the hacking the email exchanges of President Buhari to find some information that could be used against him in the election he later won.
Data brokering is not new in the influence industry. We all come across advertisements online that make us wonder how online marketing companies know about our passions and wants! The biggest issue is when these companies start using the data they harvested for political manipulation and weaponization of disinformation and misinformation to distort democracy. Internet of things (IoA) is continuously becoming parts and parcels of our daily lives and data brokers are utilizing our big data to understand and manipulate our emotions and inclinations. Their activities in political spheres are undeniably destroying the essence of our democracy that is already suffering from the rhetoric, bullshits and half-truths.
Politicians around the world have started employing different strategies beyond the micro-targeting services of Facebook and Twitter by creating mobile apps requesting access to microphone and camera of mobile phones. In Nigeria, politicians are yet to start using the macro tech option but the strategies they use on messaging apps like WhatsApp and how they started employing tech savvies to help them are all insinuations that they will surely find a way beyond using “data boys” to peddle misinformation and disinformation. The controversial social media and hate speech bill in Nigeria could not help it when manipulation moves to geo-targeting and digital listening, beyond the traditional disinformation strategies on social media platform. Our responsibility is to make people become aware of and ready for the inescapable future through sensitization and massive awareness both online and offline to save our democracy from the consequences that may arise from the negative use of technology to destroy our democracy.