Facebook a danger to democracy

Facebook will infiltrate elections and rule the world in 10 years… unless we stop it Nafeez AhmedInvestigative journalist, recovering academic, tracking the Crisis of Civilization.Posted Dec 23, 2017
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What do NATO, private military contractors, aerospace firms, wine merchants, the NSA, Trump, British property tycoons, Russian oligarchs, and Big Oil have in common? The world’s largest social networkEditorial assistance by Andrew MarkellImagine a world in which everybody gave away their freedom, willingly, in return for belonging to a toxic network which, rather than enriching their lives, profited from eroding civil discourse, polarizing communities, and manipulating their minds.Wouldn’t you wonder what was wrong with these people?You would. And yet that is the world you are about to inhabit, right now. Unless you do something about it.* * *This story is a call to action. A call on citizens, technologists, philanthropists, journalists and beyond to take action to disrupt our current path to a dystopian, monocultural future. As such, it experiments with a new form of journalistic narrative called Open Inquiry, that aims to balance out the investigation of power with a recognition of solutions and alternatives.* * *

Insurge is a new platform for Understanding News, and moving from Understanding to Action.Facebook is on track to become more powerful than the National Security Agency – so says a senior advisor to the US military intelligence community who predicted the rise of artificial intelligence and robot warfare. In less than a decade, Facebook’s growth will mean it potentially has the ability to monitor almost everyone on the planet. This will make the firm more powerful than any other government contractor in the world.This prospect has dangerous ramifications for democracy. Increasing evidence reveals that Facebook’s most lucrative business model is to outsource itself as a conduit for psychological warfare to any third party that wants to influence the beliefs and behaviors of citizens.Key portions of this story have remained untold, until now. You’ve heard the story of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook profiling to influence election campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. You’ve heard how Russia has curious ties to some of these players, even as it too has gamed Facebook in its efforts to fight ‘hybrid war’.All of which suggests an extreme right-wing cabal has used Big Data to hijack US, British and European democratic processes.But this is not the whole story. INSURGE intelligence navigates a web of connections between Cambridge Analytica’s directors, senior employees and associated companies, throwing new light on how the firm’s modus operandi has been developed in the most classified bowels of the British government’s national security system.We reveal for the first time the firm’s sweeping interlinkages with powerful Anglo-American political and economic interests; the NATO national security complex; military intelligence agencies; private military contractors accused of illegal activity and incompetence; the global fossil fuel industry; and a pro-Tory British financial oligarchy with massive investments in British and Russian property markets. Rather than representing a grand conspiracy, these interlocking networks grant us a window into the structural alignment of power in which they operate.Cambridge Analytica’s UK umbrella company, SCL Group, is a former UK Ministry of Defense contractor which held access to classified information. Our investigation reveals that the firm continues to have symbiotic ties with the British Foreign Office, which officially wants to exploit the firm’s success in assisting the Trump campaign for UK foreign policy goals.Mark Turnbull, who heads up SCL Elections, the subsidiary company responsible for the firm’s elections work, is a former Bell Pottinger consultant who oversaw Pentagon influence operations in Iraq, one of which produced fake al-Qaeda videos.The same Turnbull had founded Aethos, the ‘strategic communications’ division of Aegis Defense Services, the giant UK military contractor bought up by the even bigger Canadian corporation, GardaWorld. Together, these firms have generated significant controversy over their treatment of civilians in Iraq, recruitment of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and ‘tactical incompetence’ in Afghanistan, to name just a few issues.SCL Group’s directors hold direct business interests in a range of companies involved in two prominent sectors: the arms and defense trade; and the global oil and gas industry. The key mover-and-shaker here is Julian Wheatland, Chairman of SCL Group, who is a director of Hatton International, an obscure company that specializes in defense offset services to private arms and aerospace firms; and a former director of a Hatton-associated company, Phi Energy Group, which worked with some of the world’s leading oil majors.Other SCL Group directors have business partnerships with powerful pro-Tory financial interests, some with ties to the Brexit campaign. Chief among them is Hanson Asset Management, the legacy of the late Thatcherite business tycoon, Lord Hanson. Patrick Teroerde, a co-founding director of Hanson Asset Management, was an early director – seemingly a co-founding director – of SCL Group subsidiary company SCL Elections, which reportedly assisted Vote Leave. Lord Hanson’s surrogate at his anti-EU ‘Business in Sterling’ group, Dominic Cummings, was Vote Leave’s campaign director.Another SCL Group director, Roger Gabb, shares a property investment company with a number of British property tycoons, including billionaire Anton Bilton and Bimaljit Singh Sandhu, both of whom are invested heavily in UK and Russian property markets through the firm, Raven Russia – which explicitly articulates an interest in opening up Russia to foreign investors. Raven Russia denies knowing Gabb or anything about SCL Group.SCL Group has not only gamed Facebook to assist the election of Donald Trump and, it seems, the Brexit campaign; but also received $1 million (CAD) to support NATO influence operations in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, targeting Russia.And while the firm no longer has contracts with the MoD, it has picked up several State Department contracts for global influence operations, is pursuing numerous others across the US federal government, and maintains close ties with the British Foreign Office.In early 2017, the FCO convened a closed conference on how the government could best utilize Big Data for its foreign policy goals, inviting Turnbull and his lead data scientist to speak about Cambridge Analytica’s work assisting the Trump campaign. The FCO refused to clarify how the gaming of Facebook to influence the American vote was relevant to the British government’s diplomatic agenda abroad.
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In short, far from representing an effort to hijack democracy from outside, we find that the range of interests associated with the firm are embedded within the most entrenched structures of the US-British military industrial complex: a complex that is becoming increasingly radicalized as it finds new ways to use the world’s largest social network to manipulate public opinion.
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All of which leads back to how Facebook has played a key role in enabling, and profiting from, psychological and behavioral influence operations by competing interest groups – a trajectory that could make the platform a more insidious threat to democracy than any of those interests alone.
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A trajectory that means the only way out is to build alternatives to Facebook that offer new approaches to information.
Now even some of Facebook’s creators are acknowledging the platform’s toxic impacts. Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former head of user growth, acknowledges his “tremendous guilt” for how the platform has “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”Former Facebook president Sean Parker expresses alarm over what the social network is “doing to our children’s brains”, based on a “social-validation feedback loop” designed to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”Facebook is rapidly moving to harness these techniques to manipulate the human psyche to influence everything we do – and potentially to even influence our political choices – all to maximize its own profits.If nothing is done to disrupt Facebook’s global trajectory, its control over our lives could be unstoppable.Yet this very trajectory reveals that Facebook is not the problem. Facebook is simply an expression of a collective societal agreement. The billions of people on Facebook are more than willing to trade our privacy, our freedom and our right to truthful information in exchange for the ‘connection’ we feel when using the platform.Facebook is the expression of a deeper problem: that as long as people are making money from a system that not only makes the Facebooks of the world possible, but encourages them; as long as people are willing to hand over the keys to their entire lives, with nothing substantial in exchange beyond sharing photos, direct messaging and Facebook groups, nothing will change.So what does the world look like when Zuckerberg owns your mind and models your behavior? A healthy and well-informed public sphere, upon which a democracy depends, is rendered increasingly impotent. In place of healthy dialogue, logic and facts, we are torn apart by raging divisions, ideologies, incoherent belief systems, apathy, rage and resignation.The already slim accountability in our public institutions is gradually eroded, replaced instead by the manipulative, unaccountable reach of those that control Big Data.Zuckerberg and his lieutenants sit atop an overarching, unelected meta-government on which nation states become irrevocably dependent for crucial information services focused on influencing our decisions.Our children live in a world where total surveillance is completely normal; where accurate information, dialogue and dissent are replaced with targeted language, and increasingly sophisticated technologies to manipulate the human psyche.And for what exactly? So that a few men and a few less women could become fabulously rich? So that you could enjoy intimate moments of sharing with your high school friends from 20 years ago? So that your company could squeeze ten more dollars of product out the door?Mark Zuckerberg’s dream does not have to become everyone else’s nightmare. But it’s going to take much more than hand waving and public declarations of contrition.So we must ask: What does the world looks like when the people win?Facebook can be disrupted. But it cannot be disrupted unless there is something else for people to plug into. It cannot be surpassed unless we are willing to accept that the widespread apathy and resignation surrounding the apparent inevitability of Facebook’s global supremacy is Zuckerberg’s greatest, and yet most undeserved, achievement.The only way to free ourselves from this inexplicable condition is to shake off the resignation; it is not real. Your will to be dangerously creative and free is real. Your ancient and timeless responsibility to leave a better world for your children is real.So, the question is, how do we initiate something more powerful than guilt and strong words of caution? How do we actually build the things that will relegate everything Facebook represents – massive monopoly power, data theft, psychological manipulation and the widespread sacrifice of human freedom on the altar of money accumulation – into a footnote of history?Drop everything, yes literally, drop everything and support the building of alternatives to the future Zuckerberg and his colleagues are busy building for you. These alternatives will ground in a fundamentally different orientation: alternatives which are about decentralizing and redistributing access to resources; enhancing the way we approach information; and encouraging generative ways of interacting with one another.This story reveals the logic and strength of your opponent. The window for your counter-move is rapidly closing.
Bigger than the NSA
Facebook will become the “most powerful government contractor” in the world, in less than ten years.The forecast was made by John Robb, a former counter-terrorism operative in US Special Operations Command and long-time US military intelligence advisor on the future of warfare to agencies like the NSA and CIA. In 2016, Robb was special consultant to the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on the future of artificial intelligence and robotics warfare.
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Posting on his New York Times-acclaimed Global Guerrillas blog, Robb explained that given Facebook’s current rate of growth, the social network platform – which currently has 2 billion monthly users – will hit an all-time high of 3.5 billion monthly users by 2025 – enough to have a “complete social graph” of the entire population on the planet.
With that many people under its radar, more than half of the 6.5 billion people living outside Russia and China, Facebook will have the capacity to effectively access information about almost the whole human population.In Robb’s words:“That’s a network that is large enough and deep enough to create a global census that can ‘see’ nearly everyone on the planet, even if they don’t have a Facebook account.”
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Social mentions of location along with images of associates, friends and family would effectively give Facebook access to the rest of the population not on the Facebook network.
This will “enable real-time tracking on nearly everyone on the planet using smartphone GPS data and ancillary information” including pictures, posted links and likes. And this, in turn, will allow Facebook to “create the largest micro-targeting database on earth”, replete with intimate details on the interests of billions of people.
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In essence, this means that Facebook’s mass surveillance capabilities will be even more powerful than that of the NSA.
In John Robb’s words:“Facebook now has the ability to offer NSA scale services, with better data, to nations around the world.”Facebook denied Robb’s forecast unequivocally. A spokesperson said:“Intelligence agencies possess wholly different legal authorities and capabilities from private sector companies, so this is a false comparison. Our operations and practices are subject to specific regulatory oversight.”
Big Brother goes global: welcome to meta-government
The problem was put well by Alexis Wichowski, a former State Department official specializing in digital diplomacy. With Facebook’s user-base now encompassing literally a quarter of the global population, she says, it has in effect become a ‘net-state’, due to its mass access.
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Facebook, however, is uniquely positioned to become the number one global service provider of information operations for world governments, whether democratic, autocratic, or in between.
In an exclusive interview with INSURGE, Robb explained that this unprecedented access to global population dynamics will make Facebook the go-to contractor for comprehensive surveillance, censorship and counter-terrorism services to governments all over the world:“The US government realizes that Facebook has better and more data than they do and can do much more with it than they can, particularly in regards to US citizens. It simply can’t keep up so the only alternative – China is doing the same thing – is to coerce the platform to work with them.”While private sector advertising will be a primary source of profits for the platform, Facebook’s success will depend on being able to avoid government regulation. By offering its own critical security and surveillance services to governments, Robb said, “Facebook will avoid regulations that will limit its ability to make money.”John Robb further predicts that Facebook will provide governments the enhanced capacity to “ID anyone using facial recognition AIs… and then track their movements globally.”The technology is already in development, with Facebook currently focusing on facial recognition tools for use with cameras in high end retail stores. The tools would gauge customer emotions and behavioral profiles by crowd-scanning facial expressions, and relay the information to managers and shop assistants.
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The platform will also be able to “limit domestic political conversations to those approved by the government,” as well as “limit sources to approved channels, prevent the discussion of banned topics, and steer conversations in subtle ways.”
Finally, Robb added, Facebook will routinely “peer into private conversations and do the network analysis to ID potential extremists. It will also actively sabotage or intervene in terrorist and extremist recruiting networks to damage their effectiveness in securing recruits.”One problem here is that definitions of a “potential” extremist, let alone extremism itself, are too vague be useful for meaningful threat detection. As I’ve previously reported for The Guardian, the Pentagon has an unfortunate track record of equating extremism with any form of political activism that is critical of government.The Facebook spokesperson denied that the company could become so powerful, noting that the top US government contractor in FY2016 “was Lockheed Martin to the tune of nearly $44 billion”.But John Robb’s point was not that Facebook would become the most profitable contractor, but the most “powerful” in terms of its capacity to influence global populations.