Facebook is killing democracy


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What state should you move to based on your personality? What character on “Downton Abbey” would you be? What breed of dog is best for you?

Some enormous percentage of Facebook’s 2.13 billion users must have seen Facebook friends sharing results of various online quizzes. They are sometimes annoying, senseless and a total waste of time.

But they are irresistible. Besides, you’re only sharing the results with your family and friends. There’s nothing more innocent, right?

Wrong.

Facebook is in the business of exploiting your data. The company is worth billions of dollars because it harvests your data and sells it to advertisers.

Users are encouraged to like, share and comment their lives away in the name of staying connected to family and friends. However, as an ethical hacker, security researcher and data analyst, I know that there is a lot more to the story. The bedrock of modern democracy is at stake.

Most people have heard of demographics – the term used by advertisers to slice up a market by age, gender, ethnicity and other variables to help them understand customers.

In contrast, psychographics measure people’s personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles. They help advertisers understand the way you act and who you are.

Historically, psychographic data were much harder to collect and act on than demographics. Today, Facebook is the world’s largest treasure trove of this data. Every day billions of people give the company huge amounts of information about their lives and dreams.

This isn’t a problem when the data are used ethically – like when a company shows you an ad for a pair of sunglasses you recently searched for.

However, it matters a lot when the data are used maliciously – segmenting society into disconnected echo chambers, and custom-crafting misleading messages to manipulate individuals’ opinions and actions.

That’s exactly what Facebook allowed to happen.

Recent reports have revealed how Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based company owned by an enigmatic billionaire and led at the time by candidate Donald Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon, used psychographic data from Facebook to profile American voters in the months before the 2016 presidential election.

Why? To target them with personalized political messages and influence their voting behavior.

A whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, described in detail how the company exploited Facebook users by harvesting their data and building models to “target their inner demons.”

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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