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How Google and Facebook are putting the bedrock of modern democracy at stake

Aeshwarya Singh Mundel | Updated on: 28 March 2018, 15:37 IST

While Buzzfeed and Zimbio are abound with Which Harry Potter character you are? and Which country do you actually belong to?, my Facebook newsfeed is full of my 'friends' sharing results of their ever so annoying personality quiz’s results. They are annoying AF. Period. And a total waste of time. But they are irresistible too at the same time.

I just caved in and took the Which Star Wars character are you? on Zimbio.

Apparently, I’m Darth Vader.

Yes. There’s some truth to that. I feel the temptation to be seduced by the dark side of the force whenever I see these stupid quizzes.

What is about these quizzes that attract us? There's not even a kernel of truth in the result. No methodology is listed. Surely, no one believes in the outcome. They're purely for our entertainment. There are no author credentials to be found. And how does one even earn the qualifications necessary to undertake an assessment of the Wizarding world? You aren't the sorting hat! Besides, you're only sharing the, sometimes funny, results with your family and friends. Right?

Wrong. I repeat. WRONG!

As you tally yes and no through the quiz that promises to 'x-ray' the takers' fundamental character, you give into the trap laid by the multimillion dollar company that harvests your 'personal' data and makes money by SELLING IT.

While you let simple algorithms that divide and reduce us into a limited number of categories, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Zimbio and many others excel in the business of exploiting your data.

In the name of staying connected with family and friends, users are encouraged to share, like, comment and react their lives away only to be psychographically profiled. Let me explain. While demographics slice up the market by age, gender, ethnicity and other variables, psychographics measure people's personalities, interests, opinions, and lifestyles. Both are ways for advertisers to understand people and their actions.

Remember the last time you were searching for a flight out of your city for a vacation in Bangkok and were left with pop-up ads of airlines offering cheap rates for the same journey on every new tab you opened? A case of uncleared cookies cache?

Wrong again. That's Google selling your information to advertisers. With Facebook emerging as the largest treasure trove for this kind of personal data, billions of peoples' lives and dreams are being traded for making unmeasurable amounts of money.

A guide to using Google and Facebook with a healthy dose of skepticism

The real problem begins when the data is used maliciously to custom-craft misleading messages to alter and manipulate users' opinions and choices. Let me break it to you. Since the early 2000s, Facebook has been providing access to academic researchers seeking to study you.

When such access is provided, the 'researcher' is able to capture all of your public information, including name, profile picture, age, gender and birthday; everything you’ve ever posted on your timeline; your entire friends list; all of your photos and the photos you’re tagged in; education history; hometown and current city; everything you’ve ever liked; and information about the device you’re using including your web browser and preferred language.

Going down the rabbit hole

As you travel across the network of questions, read rabbit hole, your story and personality unfold. Companies hungry for this data then create websites, ads, and blogs that attract Facebook users and encourage them to spread the word. It's a domino effect. Besides providing information, Zuckerberg's company has also encouraged developers to build apps for its platform, this along with buying apps like Whatsapp and Instagram. In return, these apps provide access to vasts amounts of user data, including information like current location. Scary, eh?

There's more.

These online quizzes have a dark edge that their analog predecessors didn’t. In the wake of the U.S. election, a secretive data firm hired by Donald Trump’s campaign boasted that it has been using quizzes for years to gather personal information about millions of voters. Its goal: the creation of digital profiles that can predict—and possibly exploit—Americans’ values, anxieties, and political leanings.

People who don't fill out quizzes were vulnerable, too. Facebook allowed companies like Cambridge Analytica to collect personal data of friends of quiz takers, without their knowledge or consent. A whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, described in detail how the company exploited Facebook users by harvesting their data and building models to “target their inner demons.” In a video interview with the Observer, Wylie explained that Politics flows from culture … you have to change the people in order to change culture.

But that's just one example. A major one, yeah. But I hope it's enough to let you know that the combining of this psychographic profiling, public disclosure, and micro-targeting advertising has entered a new era of fear.

The not so innocent-looking Facebook quizzes like Who you really are? are killing democracy. For in this internet savvy era anything you do is like taking a personality quiz: Everywhere you click reveals something about you. But are you the only one seeing the results? Or it is a two-way mirror?

First published: 28 March 2018, 15:37 IST
Aeshwarya Singh Mundel

#Mustang with a knack for traveling & writing~