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Social Media Data Harvesters Cambridge Analytica and the Middle East

The Question of Freedom and Democracy?

Signs for company Cambridge Analytica in the lobby of the building in which they are based on March 21, 2018 in London, England. (Getty Images)

by Ghenwa El Minawi

The controversy around Cambridge Analytica in its use of improperly accessed personal data to influence prominent political campaigns ranging from the 2016 US General Election to the UK’s Brexit raises several important questions with potentially dire consequences. This breach in digital security is far from localised in the West and yields profound implications for the Middle East and its social media infrastructure.

Cambridge Analytica, the infamous political consultancy firm with self-praising execs for getting Trump into The White house, was originally established by UK-based SCL in 2013. With Trump’s former right-hand man and campaign strategist Steve Bannon as vice-president and the generous Robert Mercer as the fiscal benefactor to this operation, it is difficult to deny the existence of a pre-existing agenda.

By March 2018, Facebook detected danger after several data leaks of millions of its users lead to a barrage of accusation. By the 18th of March investigations were launched amidst cathartic legal-media frenzy. The New York Times then revealed that the same information was utilised to build software designed to swing voters.

A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook’s corporate headquarters location in Menlo Park, California on March 21, 2018. (Getty Images)

BUT WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE MIDDLE EAST?

A number of investigations revealed that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, was behind the digital war against the social media anatomy of ISIS. It was also revealed that the Ministry of Defence held four contracts worth £347,000 ($490,000) for data analytics services with SCL. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) employed SCL’s services by targeting users prone to engaging with Islamic jihad.  Online target users who were prone to engaging with Islamic jihad would be assailed by messages and advertisements aimed at the de-radicalisation of youths. But what are the consequences on the attitudes around, and usage of, social media in the Middle East?

Several Arab users took to social media platforms such as Twitter to voice their opinions on the contentious revelations about SCL and Cambridge Analytica.

SOCIAL MEDIA RESPONSES

Whilst the majority utilised twitter as a platform to voice the widespread sense of betrayal:

Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation and misuse of 50 million Facebook profiles contain details and motives that are both crazy and unbelievable.

We were all naïve to assume that #Facebook and its services were free! But the reality is that Mark Zuckerberg sold us from the start. #Camebridge_Analytica

Facebook has truly become the worst social media platform and it’s now necessary to have particular skills so that you know how to take care of your account without closing it… I resent them.

Others found this to be the opportune time to sound the death knell on Zuckerberg’s digital empire:

The #Facebook_Scandal is something unsurprising. I deleted my account years ago upon realising its malice and the malice of Zuckerberg, who rendered his users stupid by handing over their personal life to him without care. Also this provided information to several sides. I hope this site and its despicable companion disappear.

After the recent #Facebook scandal and the leaking of 50 million US users to Trump in the last presidential election.. Facebook is subjected to a large offensive campaign by Acton, the founder of WhatsApp, and called on everyone to delete Facebook .. Musk, the founder of Tesla and Space X, responded quickly and deleted them! Is it the beginning of the end?

Meanwhile others stressed the necessity of Facebook as a communicative platform:

#Facebook_Scandal I personally don’t see a problem as the platform provides you with communicative services, and is only angered by those who have fallen to the ‘gram of love’ (Instagram) you know what I mean.

A DIGITAL DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT?

The Arab Uprisings at the onset of 2010, sent regional and global shockwaves with social media platforms such as Facebook at the heart of its operative success in networking and mobilising public dissent. Social media provides an ideal site for the cultivation of extensive linkages which democratise a small fragment of society by providing a form of socio-political mobility.

Professors Damien Radcliffe and Carolyn S. Chambers in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, collated the sixth annual report on the state of social media in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). One finding shows that since 2012, Facebook’s MENA user base has increased by an unsurprising 264%. Moreover, Radcliffe and Chamber’s research explicates that Facebook ranks as the highest daily news source among Arab youth in the region, surpassing both traditional and alternative digital platforms.

It appears as though digital surveillance apparatuses are no longer confined to state infrastructures and pervade the life of its daily users. Given the Western pursuit of exporting democratic ideals around the world, this poses a significant set-back to that political endeavour.

But is the principal platform for divulging the politics of contention, Facebook, complicit in the surveillance and commodification of dissent? Several social media users broadcast their sentiments online:

Some acquired a comic perception of the Facebook fiasco apt to the regional political climate:

THE PERSIAN PERSPECTIVE

by Hanan Azizi

Having identified and related the core tenants of this issue back to the Middle East in relation to Islamic radicalisation and its utility as a vehicle of democracy, it’s interesting to see how this effected the perception of Iranian social media users. Social media is vital to harbouring key networks and information regarding the ongoing anti-government demonstrations. Although the government blocked the widely used messaging app, Telegram, and suspended internet access within cities fostering political dissent. Holly Dagres, a Middle East analyst and curator of The Iranist newsletter told The New York Times that there are between 40-46 million Telegram accounts in Iran. The Iranian government is no stranger to a robust and censorious cyber-structure considering sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been blocked since 2009. Yet this has done little to obstruct its vocal public on the Cambridge Analytica scandal:

Iranian users on Instagram expressed their discontent:

The most that is crushed under the feet with the boot is humanity. #MarkZuckerberg Lack of understanding and awareness = Account closure

Meanwhile others continued to stress the importance of Zuckerberg’s achievements:


Mark Zuckerberg talks about his experiences, such as success, positive thoughts, perseverance, hard work, development and achieving the goal set out.

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