The Benevolent Ruler in our lives – Facebook and big data

Key Points
  • Third party apps and surveys have been used to harvest the personal information of over 50mil Facebook users
  • That data has been analysed to identify personality types and then influence the way individuals behave
  • Big data is becoming more pervasive and both government and business are seeking to use it to change what we do and how we do it


From Shakespeare’s ongoing battles getting his plays approved by the Master of the Revels (the Elizabethan version of Australian Classification Board) through to Triple J’s language warnings, the tension between free speech and censorship has concerned society and law makers for centuries. So too has the fine balance between open and free social interactions and individual privacy.

The nature of social engagement today provides a heavily contested space where public opinion and legal protections struggle to keep pace with the latest new shiny app or platform dangled before us by silicon valley.

At a time when life’s traditional milestones – our love affairs, broken hearts, births, deaths and marriages - can be conveyed publically to all who know us within seconds of the event occurring, the collection and collation of our most intimate events and responses are increasingly being catalogued by strangers with motives greater than being passive observers of our daily lives.

The recent revelations regarding Facebook and data analysts, Cambridge Analytica, have thrown international spotlight on the advances in big data’s ability to monitor a population and what interested parties can make of this information in order to influence everything from the TV shows we watch to how we perceive and select our Government.

Reports emerged in early 2018 that the US political campaign of Donald Trump had utilised the services of Cambridge Analytica to identify and influence voters in the Presidential election. The claims centered around the use of a Facebook “personality survey” which then provided access to the private information of users. Although around 270,000 users are estimated to have undertaken the survey in question, the information of their friends was also compromised, with details of over 50 million profiles being made accessible to the Trump campaign team for the purposes of influencing voter intentions (“How Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data, triggering new outcry” The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March, 2018). The data collected was subsequently analysed to identify an individual’s personality and then influence their behaviour at the ballot box.    

Unsurprisingly, when this was revealed, members of the US Government sought to intervene more thoroughly in Facebook’s processes and policies, with the likely outcomes of either further self-regulation on the part of the company, additional government imposed regulation, or both set to shape the way Facebook is required to engage with its users and third party developers.

On the surface, the collection, integration and analysis of our personal data may not seem to be so big a deal. However, with the emerging revelations about how data revealing our individual personalities is being used to “nudge”, or manipulate, our thoughts and actions, the possibilities and future implications are broad ranging and a likely cause for widespread concern.

In a world where nudge economics* delivered the father of the nudge theory the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics, and the nudge approach is being increasingly utilised by both Big Business and Big Government to change our behaviour, it is clear that any secretive collection of Big Data should be of concern to everyone.

*Read more about nudge economics in my next blog.

Post by Najeh Marhaba

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