As the World Wide Web turned 28 years old on 12 March, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet while working at CERN in 1989, warned that the rise of fake news, political advertising and misuse of personal data threatens to damage the potential of the internet to be a tool that ‘serves all of humanity’.
‘Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,’ he wrote. ‘Is that democratic?’ I’d go further and ask, is it ethical?
Clearly Berners-Lee’s remarks were targeted at the big data business that backed the Trump and Brexit campaigns: a company called Cambridge Analytica. But just where did this frightening scientific success story come from?
In 2008 a couple of researchers at Cambridge University in the UK developed a ‘My Personality Test’ app that measures participants on the five key ‘OCEAN’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. After initial trials with the student population the test jumped to Facebook where it really took off.
You may have taken one of these ‘fun’ tests yourself to find out what kind of a person you are. The thing is, all the information collected via that app (which is still running today) went into a huge comparative database and ‒ when coupled with additional data-scraping of people’s Facebook likes ‒ it became a scarily accurate predictive tool.
Once that data gathering reached a critical mass, the researchers felt confident they could predict a user’s skin colour, sexual orientation, political affiliation, intelligence, religion etc on the basis of just 68 Facebook ‘likes’. As the number of likes by a particular user grew, the tool could divine more about them than their closest friends or partner knew.
It was then that a UK company called Strategic Communications Laboratories stepped in and offered to work with the researchers if they would share their data and algorithms. SCL was a behavioural change management company and that’s when the researchers became worried. You see, the thing about knowing exactly what makes a person tick is that it also tells you what buttons to push to influence or change their behaviour. At that point the researchers walked away, but their research was owned by the university, which saw the potential profit in the work. Soon after, SCL changed its name to Cambridge Analytica, the company that provided Trump and Brexit with the big data that allowed them to accurately target individual voters with specifically tailored messaging. The rest is history.
Strange coincidence. Billionaire Robert Mercer has a US$10M stake in Cambridge Analytica. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Mercer is also Donald Trump’s single biggest donor and bankrolled the creation of now-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s (fake) news site Breitbart.
Science is neutral. It can be used for good or evil. But next time you think about doing one of those fun Facebook quizzes, you might want to think again.
This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1