David Mathieu, Roskilde University, Denmark; a chair of ECREA Audience and Reception Studies section
In spite of its short life (2013-2018), Cambridge Analytica (CA) is already history. The revelations that emerged about the ways the firm was using data for political targeting surprised and shocked many. To such an extent that Zuckerberg was asked to explain himself in front of the US Senate and House of Representatives. But there are some reasons not to be surprised by what we have witnessed so far.
The practices incriminated have been commonplace in the media industry and well documented by audience researchers for more than forty years. The commodification of the audience, that is, the collection and use of data about media audiences (now called users) for commercial purposes is far from new. What has excited imagination is perhaps the scale at which these practices now operate, also known as volume in the language of big data, to be ranged beside velocity, variety and veracity. While these four characteristics of big data analysis are what worried the members of Congress that interrogated Zuckerberg (whose charge was perhaps meant as the political equivalent of these four V’s), they also form the very discourse by which big data is promoted in business and governance.
If we were to believe social media and journalistic barometers, the revelations of CA and subsequently of Facebook’s own practices have received a lot of interest and may have contributed to developing a glimpse of data consciousness amongst the public, a wave that is more than welcome to support the incoming EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But this sudden interest appears less surprising in the big picture. Since the advent of Web 2.0 and as commercialism took over the Internet, users have been denied the opportunity to take seriously any concerns for privacy and for ownership of their data. The social (business) order decreed by media moguls did not allow it. I suspect users understand the price they pay for using “free” media services resides in giving away their data and privacy. In the sea of what most of us repress every time we “accept” the lengthy, technical and surprisingly vague terms and conditions that we do not read (because what’s the point), the revelations of CA appeared as an occasion to manifest this latent discontent. Public discourse followed its course and did a good job in expressing this discontent.
Now, what will follow from this scandal that can support the political space that has been opened? A recent survey conducted by IPSOS suggests that Facebook users are still relying on its services as much as before the scandal, if not more. This, in spite of the stream of posts urging to close one’s Facebook account; a campaign that was – it must be said – running on Facebook. Furthermore, while the timing of the GDPR could not be better, I doubt that this piece of regulation can tackle the issues raised by the revelations. CA was portrayed as an isolated incident and the closing of the company has allowed to create closure around it. While this particular firm has shut down, the problem remains entirely.
To begin with, several former CA directors were appointed to a recently established data firm, Emerdata. It also seems that Zuckerberg has succeeded in arguing that matters of data and privacy concern the explicit sharing of content amongst users, and not the insidious collection of data left by our digital footprints. It seems that “enhancing user experience” will continue to be the justification served to users for what media companies do with their data. It seems that the business model on which media companies are built will go unchanged for some time to come; the same business model that keeps denying possibilities for users to take control of their data. The wheel keeps rolling, but what really worries me is the double discourse upon which big data is developing. Data is becoming a source of concern at the same rate as it is normalized and spread in all corners of public and private life. This double discourse is bound to bring further inequalities and divides in our societies. Research – not least audience research – needs to play a pro-active role in informing these developments.