Smile, you're on camera. Image: Intel Free Press/Flickr

What’s really amazing isn’t the manipulations we suffer, through Facebook, Cambridge Analytica (CA) et al, but how much autonomy we retain despite them.

Let me list some reasons not to despair over the recent shockers.

  • Alexander Nix, the arrogant boss of CA, who claimed total credit for Donald Trump’s victory, especially the 40,000 votes that clinched it, is merely a salesman who’ll claim anything for his product. If you know salesmen (I come from a long line) that’s what they do. He’s not a tech genius who programs the villainy, he just hustles it. On Channel 4‘s hidden camera, where he boasted about their triumphs, he was trying to snare what he believed were corrupt clients from Sri Lanka. He pulled out the stops.
  • The techie whistleblower from CA, Canadian Christopher Wylie, said, “we built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.” That’s scary, but bear in mind it’s exactly what political and ad campaigns have always done. It doesn’t mean they’ll succeed, or already have.
  • Re: that, the always grounded in reality journalist Patrick Cockburn noted how “many very astute and experienced American politicians, backed by billions of dollars, regularly try and fail to decide who will hold political office in the U.S.”
  • Journalists like those at Channel 4 routinely overhype their stories. “Data company may have affected U.S. election,” isn’t nearly as headliney, or career-advancing. It’s also why they add spooky music under their interviews.
  • Cambridge Analytica’s masterstroke may be its name, not its methodology. That’s Steve Bannon’s view, who claims he coined it. It does ring uncannily like Encyclopedia Britannica. Who wouldn’t trust so august a source?

Neverthless, I agree that the gushers of data collected by Facebook are obscene and it should probably be broken up the way the big banks were after they almost destroyed the world in 2008. Oh wait, that didn’t happen.

But I tend to see the horrors of manipulation as less striking than the signs of human ability to act independently anyway. How else do you explain unexpected events like Bernie Sanders’ surge? He didn’t just surge, he nearly won.

Noam Chomsky, who almost on his own exposed the hideous manipulations by mainstream media during the past century, says he was “completely surprised by it. It was really spectacular. I couldn’t have predicted anything like it. It’s a break with over a century of American political history. No corporate support, no financial wealth, he was unknown, no media support.” Yet people found their way to him and got behind him. That’s also true for upheavals like Black Lives Matter and their success in forcing their way onto the agenda.

Belief in the ability to act freely anyway (AFA) may be specially pertinent in an era that’s being confronted unavoidably with the depths of systemic racial, gender and other bias. I’ve always felt it preferable, if it’s applicable, to talk less about racists — which sounds unalterable, as if they have a racist “essence” — than about racist attitudes, speech, behaviour, etc. One student recently said to a friend, in the midst of campus storms over social justice: “I don’t know if I should say this out loud, but I think people can change.”

I also think (to backtrack again) that we do get shaped by unknown forces, some of which run far deeper than Facebook algorithms. They affect everyone, including wannabe manipulators like Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica.

I just stumbled on an interview with “ecological economist” Lisi Krall. For years she’s studied the behaviour of certain ant species. She’d definitely count as a “progressive” but she worries that, during the first 150,000 years of human life as hunter-gatherers, we lived in relative harmony with our plant and animal neighbours. Yet lately, i.e., the last 12,000 years, with the rise of agriculture, have come hierarchies, domination, labour differentiation (very like ants) and increasing strife with each other and our co-inhabitants.

It all may end in extinction — ours, if not theirs. How do we gain control or awareness of these deep instincts, she wonders. While some worry about the agendas of Zuck and CA, she’s expending understandable anxiety over our primordial antiness.

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Image: Intel Free Press/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.