Late last year before news of the Facebook data mining scandal broke Cambridge Analytica told Campaign magazine that getting people to vote is “no different from marketing toothpaste”.
The shameless brag by commercial vice-president Richard Robinson gave an unvarnished view of how the company works, by “understanding people’s motives”, what their “attitudes and opinions” are and what “behavioural models” they follow.
Not unlike the average marketeer then, and surely no worse than train fares being advertised on our social feeds moments after we checked the cost of a weekend jaunt to Brighton or camping equipment showing up when we book festival tickets.
At least, that’s been the reaction of a lot of people in response to revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of social media profiles to allegedly swing crucial elections.
Isn’t that what marketers have been doing all along? Isn’t that the price we pay for making our personal profiles public?
Yet it is one thing buying an off-peak return to the south coast and quite another having our political landscape turned upside down by ill thought-out populist movements.
As Nathan Oxley wrote in Open Democracy here, “like all good propagandists, CA’s currency is emotion: not only hopes and dreams, but fear and loathing”.
Such techniques have found a welcome home on Facebook. As well as being a place where we share our lives with our friends, it is also a place where “people share their anger, anxieties and resentment, in search of validation and motivation from their friends”.
In the US, that resentment manifested in Donald Trump. In the UK, it manifested in Brexit. Two populist-driven agendas that have already caused significant political upset, but most worryingly, have validated people’s misguided fears and anxieties.
But it’s not just the west that have had their political landscape hijacked by dangerous agendas riding a wave of resentment on Facebook.
At the ERPI conference on ‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World’, activists and researchers working in far flung places, from Myanmar, Kenya, the USA, Indonesia, Russia, Colombia and elsewhere, discussed how fear and loathing has spread in rural areas.
To pick Myanmar as a case in point, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and been subject to intimidation and brutal violence at the hands of the state.
Online propaganda also forms an important part of attempts to justify the government’s actions.
So the next time you hear someone compare Cambridge Analytica to selling toothpaste, show them this. People are dying at the hands of populist regimes and the world is becoming more divided at a time when unity could be our only salvation.
That’s why this is such a big deal.