Can social media data be used for manipulation?

The technology employed by social media platforms provides real-time access to user data. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • The technology employed by social media platforms provides real-time access to user data.

In 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, the US government announced that it intended to profile its citizens to better protect them. The citizens were up in arms because despite their fear of another attack, their distrust of large institutions compelled them to do so.

In 2004, Facebook was launched and they told us they intended to profile us so that they could better connect us with long lost relatives, pals and random people that may have similar interests. We welcomed the idea with open arms and voluntarily supplied our personal data to strangers.

In 2018 Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm, revealed that they had mined data of 87 million people from the largest social media platform to inform the political campaigns in the US, Kenya and other parts of the world. We were livid; we felt betrayed.

Facebook as transformed from being a purely social networking platform to being a media channel and even though they still put the word ‘social’ before the word ‘media’ the fact still stands.

We felt betrayed because we thought that we were projecting our lifestyle to our friends and family and now that data is open to the national administration that we distrust so much.

However, in order for any media channel to operate effectively they have to demonstrate their ability to reach either the broad population or valuable market segments.

Facebook has demonstrated this ability to such a high degree that they made up to $40 billion dollars in advertising in 2017, up 49 per cent from the previous year.

Traditionally, the media houses had to rely on third party research and joint industry committees to supply data about their audiences which they did through conventional data collection.

The technology employed by social media platforms provides real-time access to user data and they’ve convinced us that the need is waning for these surveying companies who provide the assurance of independent and non-partisan data collection.

Under the surface there is no difference between what the social media companies are doing and what the research vendors provide, except that the social media data is so much more comprehensive and the analysis possibilities are a data cruncher’s wet dream.

So now the shots have been fired at Facebook and their elk, and next in the firing line is Target (what an appropriate name) and other major retail chains that are tracking our shopping behaviour and know certain things about us that government, Facebook and friends will never know.

Maybe Cambridge Analytica should strike a deal with these retail networks to get our data too, and then sell it off to the dodgy politicians that aim to control not just our livelihoods but our minds as well. On second thoughts maybe they shouldn’t and any data analyst that claims that they won elections for politicians are making exaggerations.

Anyway, as Facebook is reeling in the backlash of the scandal, Cambridge Analytica is basking in the media attention because for them any publicity is good publicity.

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