When was the last time you saw a post on a social media platform and it triggered emotions? Happiness, sadness, pride, fear or anger? If you observe carefully, it happens quite a lot. To an extent that we tend to simply ignore it, thinking it is normal.    

Social media and tech firms revolutionised the way people communicate. But with the passage of time, these firms transformed into giants and their platforms became capable of doing something, perhaps, no one ever thought of — hacking human emotions. How? The biggest hack in the history of social media gives a glimpse.

“How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?”

Netflix recently released a documentary, The Great Hack, sets out to seek an answer to one of the most difficult questions, staring at the face of democracy and human society in the age of information technology: Right-wing parties are coming to power, across the world, and people are more polarised now than ever. Do social media and tech giants have any role to play in it?

The documentary, directed by Karim Amer and Jahane Noujaim, investigates the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, along with the people involved in it. The firm was accused of manipulating voter behaviour in 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit vote, among others. In March 2018, a whistle-blower, Christopher Wiley (a former CA research director) came out with shocking revelations about how the information of nearly 87 million US Facebook users was sold to the firm. But Facebook called it an information leak.

When David Caroll, a professor of media design, got to know about the hack, he demanded the British firm to share the data it had on him. “As I dug deeper, I found that these traces of ourselves are being mined into a trillion dollar a year industry. We are now the commodity,” said Mr Caroll. “The question I kept asking myself was, who was feeding us fears? And how?”

Project Alamo, which was collecting digital voter database for Donald Trump’s campaign was spending $1 million a day on Facebook ads. CA was working on it, too. To send people personalised messages, the firm had 5,000 data points on every American (who had a Facebook account). Of course, these people had no information that their data was being used for political advertising. The firm, through the bombardment of personalised advertisements, persuaded people (the identified persuadables) to vote for their candidate — Mr Trump.

When Brexit vote happened, a British journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, went to her home town, Ebbw Vale, where 62 per cent people had voted to leave the European Union. During her TEDtalk, she said, the town’s infrastructure was built with the European Union money but the people said they were fed-up of the EU. They said they have had enough of the immigrants. While the town had one of the lowest numbers of immigrants in the UK, many people said crimes by immigrant were on the rise, and they quoted Facebook’s scary posts as their source.

What happened here is not just about two elections or a firm. It’s about using people’s data to exploit their vulnerabilities. In the age of information overload, not everyone takes time to verify the information they have been served on their screens. Every time a person sees a hateful post, presented as fact, it changes the way they she/he sees the world a little. This play on hate, anger and fear is costing us more than the time we spend on these platforms. But the question is: Will this change anytime soon? Well, it is unlikely.

The reason lies in the money trail. Facebook earned $16.6 billion in the second quarter (Q2) of 2019, which is 28 per cent more than the amount it earned in the same period last year. For Google, the advertising revenues were $32.6 billion in Q2.  

Coming to the Indian context, during the 2019 elections, political parties spent over Rs 53 crore in advertising on digital platforms (between February and May 2019). According to the Facebook Ad Library, the top three spenders between February and July 2019 were the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP (Rs 4.32 crore), the Indian National Congress or the INC (Rs 1.81 crore) and a page called My First Vote to Modi (Rs 1.18 crore). According to Google’s Transparency Report, the top three spenders since February 2019 were the BJP (Rs 12.3 crore), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Rs 4.10 crore) and the INC (Rs 3.04 crore). Cambridge Analytica has shut down but if you look at Facebook’s Ad Library, you will know that it’s not needed anymore. Facebook provides the advertiser with a targeted reach to its audience. The ad won’t be visible to anyone else. 

More money is being spent on triggering emotions. But how do we know that the post we just saw, or the ad we were exposed to, has an agenda? Here, awareness is the key. Observe yourself the next time you feel any emotion of fear and anger after seeing a social media post. Of course, there are exceptions. But if some posts are repeatedly forcing you to think a certain way, they might be personalised for you.

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