Books

Manufacturing consent 2.0

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on December 02, 2019 Published on December 02, 2019

Title: Targeted : My Inside Story of Cambridge Analytica and How Trump and Facebook Broke Democracy Author: Brittany Kaiser Publisher: HarperCollins Price: ₹699

Brittany Kaiser’s book reveals how companies are illegally using data to influence people’s choices

The truth, says the Bible, will set you free. And that’s the line with which Brittany Kaiser, the whistle-blower in the Cambridge Analytica data abuse scandal, begins Targeted, her inside story of how “big data, Trump and Facebook broke democracy and how it can happen again.” To be frank, truth is a tricky subject, and for a book that discusses the perils of technology companies targetting individuals’ privacy and taking away their right to own their data, the ideal beginning could have been from George Orwell, who said the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world and lies will pass into history.

We live in the post-truth era now. Truth invariably has many versions in these times. Fact-checkers across the globe are having a harrowing time cleaning up news, studies, social media posts and similar forms of communication that contain what their owners claim is nothing but the truth. At this juncture, knowing the truth is important indeed. But what’s more important is to clinically analyse the version of the truth you’ve received, and test it against the greater common good so that you know your truth remains socially useful — or the ‘true’ truth.

Advent of data

Seeking truth is a task that has inspired great men in history and mythology. From Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi — who named his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth — finding the truth was a philosophical mission for many, in which they revelled and found the meaning of their existence. But that was before ‘data’ happened. The arrival and expansion of social media and the immense power societies across the globe allotted to data-gorging technology companies have made matters so worse, that truth-making has become a business.

Manufacturing truth is a multimillion-dollar industry now. And Kaiser, a former member of the falsehood cartel, opens a can of worms about the way this toxic system works, in the US and elsewhere, by revealing inside stories about the way businessmen, technologists, propagandists and politicians abuse personal data of people to influence them in such a way that they are forced to change their understanding of what’s right and wrong.

That’s exactly what happened with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018. Kaiser is a political consultant and technologist who worked with Cambridge Analytica when it tried to exploit chinks in the US privacy laws to help elect Donald Trump. Many strongly believe the tactics, which involved psychologically profiling voters — by illegally accessing and analysing private information that helped reveal personality traits, biases, choices and other crucial data — to influence political behaviour.

Cambridge Analytica was a UK-based political consulting firm. It was funded by Robert Mercer, a billionaire who was a big supporter of Trump. Kaiser was working as business development director for the firm when it undertook its now-infamous profiling programme. It is an arresting irony that Kaiser, a champion of data rights in her student years and who later advocated using the power of data for social good, ended up working for an organisation that paid scant regard to such goals and concerns and allegedly used private information to influence voting in the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential polls. Kaiser later testified about her involvement in the whole affair before the UK Parliament and (privately) before the Mueller investigation, which looked into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US elections.

A dirty business

Kaiser’s book is written like a racy spy or crime thriller. Even though chances of the reader being familiar with most of the characters and events in the book are very high, considering that the controversies have attracted global scrutiny, the way Kaiser presents them make the characters and situations seem extremely fresh and gripping, and the narrative has an old-school, Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins-sque charm. Sample this slice where Kaiser describes her early interaction with Alexander Nix, the then CEO of Cambridge Analytica: “ ‘Alexander James Ashburner Nix,’ the card read. From the weight of the paper stock on which it was printed to its serif typeface, it screamed royalty. “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets,” Alexander Nix said, and laughed, but I could tell he was only half-joking.”

Sparing the prologue and epilogue, the book has 20 crisp but detailed chapters. This is a book you can fast-read and slow-read, and in both instances, you stand to gain a lot of insights into the world of data and how technology companies, hand-in-glove with maverick businessmen, greedy politicians, try to glean as much private information out of unaware public and use itto make billions.

Even more interesting are instances in the book where Kaiser feeds you with curious nuggets of information that will help you connect the dots and enjoy the larger picture that emerges. For example, in Chapter 6 (Meetings and Reunions) she says Cambridge Analytica’s creation story didn’t involve Facebook. It was, in fact, another internet behemoth that gave birth to Alexander Nix’s baby — Google.

In 2013, writes Kaiser, Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, interned at Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group, a behavioural research and strategic communications consultancy, where Nix was a director. Sophie shared with Nix new developments at her father’s company. And what caught the maverick data businessman’s fancy was the new developments in Google Analytics which was collecting and analysing data from almost half the world’s top-performing websites. This business model was perfectly in synch with what Nix had in mind, and the inspiration was so profound, that soon Cambridge Analytica happened.

Kaiser doesn’t hide her role in the whole scam, nor does she paint a sorry figure of herself. She tells her story with startling neutrality — how she was seduced by the glamour of the data business, enticed by the avalanche of money, the adrenaline rushes her assignments gave her and, above all, the power that the ability to fiddle with people’s behaviour offered. Her story is eerie to the core. It reveals a world where truth gets its 50 dark shades, and as things stand now, we are not in a position to control its emergence. Targeted is the Book of Revelations of the data era.

Published on December 02, 2019

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