Hamster On A Wheel
gfiles|August 2019
The demand to ban TikTok and break the encryption technology of WhatsApp highlights the challenges that rapidly evolving digital technologies pose for India. The absence of data protection laws further exacerbates the problem, leaving millions of Indians vulnerable to behavioural manipulation by vested groups. Vivek Mukherji reports.
Vivek Mukherji

NEXT time you log into Facebook and click on that thumb sign to like a post or write a comment or update your status or undertake one of those silly surveys that pop up on your timeline, pause for a moment and think. You might not realise but you have voluntarily provided some more byte-sized information about yourself to some big data analytics firm in another part of the world that will be fitted into the mosaic of similar data about yourself gathered over a period of time by bots powered by Artificial Intelligence residing in the vast expanse of cyberspace to build a detailed psychographic profile of you. This is called metadata.

Then one fine day, Facebook ads or political messages of a certain persuasion start appearing on your timeline; rest assured, it’s not at all random. In fact, you have been targeted for that type of messaging. The more you consume a particular type of message, the more you will be bombarded with a similar genre of information. Like a hamster on a wheel that can’t get off, you will be providing a constant feedback loop that will keep getting bigger until you succumb to the persuasion to take action that has been shaped by the constant din of a particular genre of messages that have been appearing on your timeline over a period of time. In military parlance, it’s called psyops.

You may not be in any warzone, but you are a digital pawn in the battle of digital giants. Big tech companies that own social media platforms or develop apps will utilise your data—in other words a part of you— to rake in big money without your explicit consent. In the process, they might even succeed in tweaking or altering your behaviour towards a cause, issue or a product. This is the holy grail of consumer behaviour—a marketing maven’s or a political strategist’s wet dream.

If you believe all this is a piece of fiction or your writer’s imagination, then log of Netflix and invest 1 hr 54 minutes to watch the recently released documentary, The Great Hack. It delves deep into the investigations carried out by journalist Carole Cadwalladr for The Guardian into the dark dealings of the notorious big data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA). The now-defunct company used Facebook data to manipulate voters’ sentiments in the run-up to the 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum.

During the period CA worked on the Trump campaign, it managed to gather 5,000 data points on every American voter to bombard them with customised digital ads at an individual level. A large chunk of the ads promoting Facebook pages with racist and biased political messages, explicitly aimed at driving a wedge in the society and thereby manipulating the voter’s behaviour, were set up by Russian intelligence.

The critically acclaimed documentary raises wide-ranging and chilling questions regarding data privacy issues. Who is the rightful owner of your data? You or the companies that own these social media platforms and apps?

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