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Day Seventeen: Of Neighbours and Friends – And on reliance on Data Company Frankensteins


Being in lockdown changes, I find, who I am close to. A neighbour, just when I had moaned that we are down to half a ripe banana each, reads my mind and pops around to the gate right now as I sit down to write this, calling out to me. With a little bag of ripe bananas from her garden. We chat about how we both don’t know yet when the free flu vaccine caravan will be coming round to Bambous. Her mother-in-law, my friend, is also actively tracking it down. There is a kind of day-to-day closeness with neighbours. It’s always there, of course, in flesh and blood geography – but somehow I haven’t appreciated it properly until now.  

 Friends and colleagues and comrades and family, by contrast, are at a distance – more than a social distance. They can be “close” only, unlike neighbours, from far away – through a call or a WhatsApp message or a shared article or an email – even those in the local LALIT branch are scattered over the village. Others can be close through a response to this blog after they read it either on the Lalit website, or on the Lalit facebook page. Meanwhile, the day of the AGM of the women’s association, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, has come and gone. I didn’t get to meet all my women’s movement sisters. The monthly Film Club viewing of a rare film – we were billed to see I can’t even remember what film – has come and gone. I miss my film club friends – we share in common the experience of seeing and chatting about a rich collection of fantastic movies from all over the world, over time. In person. The workers’ education LPT meetings and courses are all, like Sleeping Beauty, in deep sleep. LALIT, via the internet, does get some common actions, and does get to work with some of the union federations – also via the internet.

 And that is how we find ourselves totally reliant on the internet and even on social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp and the rest. And we are in an almightly double-bind. 

 We cannot use the social networks, or even the internet, without exposing ourselves to being both the slaves of the companies that own them – we work free for them – and their puppets – they get to know us so well they can manipulate us, put us in herds, and isolate us and drive us, like cattle, into different corrals. 

 And I have lived this painful contradiction of, at the same time, needing the social networks and hating their autocracy, in a particularly extreme version. Why? I had ordered the book by the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie (via Amazon, another data thief and manipulator). It arrived a couple of days before the lockdown began. The book is about the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook double scandals of the manipulation of both the Trump election and the Brexit referendum. So, as I became more and more reliant on social media during the lockdown, I was reading in more and more horrid detail just how grotesque these social media private firms’ control over society is. And maybe that is another reason to treasure my neighbours. Facebook and WhatsApp and Amazon do not moderate our every connection.

 Anyway, the book is aptly called MINDF*CK in capital letters. It was written by one of the young men who worked for Cambridge Analytica (a part of the SCL Group of data mining companies). He shows how it was possible to create a moving image of the totality of a society – by accumulating enough individual data on each human. They started with small societies in the Caribbean. And that the creator of this Frankenstein could then first guess what data would change the real life behavior of someone (or rather some group of someones), then test it. And then apply it. 

 This group of companies was heavily funded by the hedge-fund billionaire who also funded Donald Trump’s election, Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah. And who was the Vice President of the company? Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s notorious right-wing advisor on strategy from Breitbart News, the news outlet to the right of Fox News, if that is possible. Steve Bannon’s first request was for Cambridge Analytica to study who felt oppressed by “political correctness”, which they then worked out ways to study.

 Anyway, these data-mining companies are, as I see them, an exponential development, in the digital age, of the already existing “advertising-manipulation” model. 

 This “advertising model” had already become normalized in capitalist society i.e. the idea that there is nothing immoral in manipulating anyone, even an underage child, even by means of preying on irrational fears and self-doubt, by means of sounds and lights on a screen, say, to buy a particular product – not for any rational reason, but just so as to make a private profit for someone invisible somewhere else. 

 So a whole industry of “advertising men” (now women, too) were made to feel OK about using psychological tricks mainly to grab money from the many poor for the few rich. 

 This manipulation was “normalized” in moral terms in the middle of the last century. So that “It is increasingly the source of finance for a whole range of general communication, to the extent that in 1960 our majority television service and almost all our newspapers and periodicals could not exist without it.” (Quoted from Raymond Williams’ seminal article, “The Magic System”, 1960 –just Google it – there I go, relying on another data manipulator). 

 First in the USA, then elsewhere, the manipulative model for advertising began to be the “normal” for political campaigns. Money was used to employ copy-writers, visual artists, cinematographers, to manipulate people for elections, and for other campaigns.

 Then came these guys – again, there are some girls, too. They mine our data from:

 -- official sources, sometimes getting hold of Census information

-- bank details, 

-- purchasing details,

-- educational details,

-- voting details

 -- and then all our social networks data. This includes so much individual data stored on each individual person that it is unimaginable. When Christopher Wylie and his Cambridge Analytica colleagues presented their work to Steve Bannon, for example, they asked him to give a name, any name. He invented one. Then name a state in the USA. He said “Nebraska”. They put that into their system and came up with two people. They chose one at random. Then exposed everything about her. To top it all, they asked Bannon if he would like to see if she was on-line right now. She was. They watched her acting on line, in real time. From offices in the UK. Talk about Big Brother.

 To make the data more useful for political-type campaigns, Facebook had allowed two types of questionnaire on line. Both concerned psychological self-analysis by thousands of people, which was all harvested and analysed. One was done in exchange for a personality analysis they would give you. The other was in exchange for a couple of dollars paid to each “volunteer”. When this psychological data is put together with what sites you visit, your “likes”, what you buy, how much education you have and so on, where you live, what work you do, what clubs you are in, it is enough to manipulate people en masse. First you are put in a statistical “group”. And each group is manipulated in isolation from all the other groups. So, in the US election, you had to herd into one group all those white male Democrats who felt “oppressed by political correctness” into “one group” and then get them to change from voting Democrat to voting Trump – tried and tested slogans and lines. Then you had to get Afro-American Democrats who voted Obama in 2012 to mistrust Hilary Clinton enough (she was not in good health, or she was racist, or she was an elitist, or any line that “caught on” in a test group) so that they would not go out and vote at all. But the people in each different group only see within their group. And no-one else gets to see inside. So, there is never a debate. The rest of the people in the democratic space do not even know about the propaganda being spread until after the election, if ever. Anyway, we had heard all about this when The Guardian and The New York Times broke the story a couple of years after Trump’s election. But, in the book it is in painful detail. It is quite hard to read, written as it is by a young, brilliant but slightly traumatized man. But the content is essential reading.

 Anyway, as in China the centrally controlled camera surveillance grows to be a menace in the new communist party capitalism (how ridiculous words have become), so in the rest of the capitalist world, in addition to the camera surveillance, we have a real Frankenstein in the form of the data companies. They are publishers who pretend to be postmen. They have none of the social or moral or even legal responsibilities that the traditional “press” had. And they are outside all democratic control now. They are even outside the control of the executive Branches of the USA and the UK – let alone any other poor nation state.

 This is all food for thought in a lockdown, when our reliance on these Frankenstein-like data companies is so total.


Lindsey Collen, for LALIT

A personal view.