Facebook Cambridge Analytica is a non-issue, the elephant in the room is something different.

Human Gossip — a sliver that gets amplified.

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Photo by Larm Rmah

Zuckerberg went on mainstream media to share, ‘I am really sorry that happened’

What really happened? Actually not much [other than Facebook stock value erosion]. Here is my why.

Could it be about influencing elections using data? Not really.

Mainstream media from Guardian to NewYork Times have an implicit belief — people are gullible enough that they are influenced by ads — to decide on how to vote. It is usually other way round, as humans we find data points and activities that support our belief system.

Best said in the words of a regular dad, Trey Tompkins, who observed real people buying popcorn from his son. In his words,

“no matter how good your cause is (or no matter how cute you are in your little scout uniform) people don’t owe you anything. They have to have a reason to want your product or “service”. Most people who donated or bought popcorn told the kids that they wanted to support the scouts because they themselves or their children had been scouts. My guess is that they knew the good works that scouting does for kids and it made them feel good to make a small investment in that.”

In those quoted words, I find a healthy respect for people [no matter what our backgrounds are- from education to ethnicity], their innate reasons and ability to make decisions.

Could it then be about data? Not really. Here is the real story in short form.

A researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a survey that effectively asked people to give him access to their address book and conversations (likes etc) in return for money. 270,000 people participated and willingly made the trade [gave access to their digital address book with Facebook] and were paid for it. Some small amount. The users clicked “allow” when a pop up happened with information like this under the banner — request for permission

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So how many “list of friends” in their address book?

Median number of connections per user on Facebook is 200. So, when you multiply 200 with 270,000 you get 54 million.

Now, it gets interesting.

A C level executive at a company called Cambridge Analytica bragged that they were able to influence an election with that data!

Data, on its own standing, is rudderless. What insight can you glean from data that can influence people?

There is a world of difference between advisory services and swaying outcome by getting things done on ground. The original research work by Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre was called at best, ‘a good party trick’ by Washington Post.

This centre, to their credit, refused to work with Cambridge Analytica (CA). So, CA hired Kogan — a researcher who worked on the project. His work was at best — a marketing blitz for drumming new advisory business — ‘look we have this research by some smart people.’ The CEO of Cambridge Analytica drank his own cool aid and bragged.

That bragging is stretching the truth — to put it mildly. No solid researcher would put their weight behind that to conclusively prove cause and outcome.

If it is not about swaying elections, if it is not about data, what is the elephant in the room?

The real issue is something different.

People could somehow sway their connections in ways similar to a TV ad or news can.

Here is the subtle difference.

In mass media, you read left view, you then go read right view and make your own conclusion about facts in the middle. Nothing is fake about it.

When you are standing in the line at the grocery store, you raise your eyebrows when you see headlines –chuckle that it is a tabloid headline and move on. Ditto for sponsored links on the reputed news- sites. We all understand that content marked “sponsored link” pays the paper’s bills for the free content we get to read.

Implicitly with mass media, we grade information based on the sharing source.

On social media, when a friend shares/likes something, he/she becomes our source. That is the problem.

The assumption Zuckerberg and team have implicitly made — people will self-police content. If that is true — then, likes and shares are key algorithmic determinants of virality.

We humans will self police, if we know the ‘quality of source’ behind my friends share — upto a point. If too many of my friends share the same, quality of source is a diminishing variant. Keep in mind, what made us survive as a species is tribal instincts. We look for societal reinforcement.

Case in point: The nemesis of a restaurant is actually empty seats near the windows facing the entrance. And empty parking lots. Or in digital parlance, no rating on Yelp. We all make blink judgements based on these data points. Malcolm Gladwell talks at length about the effect of blink, in his book aptly named Blink.

The approach Zuckerberg and team are taking to correct for this reality — hire more human curators to help police content. This is analogous to saying Amazon will only grow through one channel — direct to customer. Amazon has partners and recently purchased Wholefoods for a reason — more channels.

In similar vein, I see this crisis as an opportunity for mainstream media (left, right doesn’t matter) and social media to partner together. And work with tabloids and sponsored links. Show us [readers] all kinds of information, no problem. Just like that grocery line, let us know the source. We will make the call on content.

Just don’t make a content go viral if the source is poor grade — even if many of us herd on it.

We will not admit — we humans gossip. We do have tribal instincts. We like debates. We sometimes agree to disagree. We fight among ourselves. We are not the strongest species but the most dominant one on this planet. We are the human race.

Bringing it all together.

For social media:

When Mark Zuckerberg stood in hoodie and rang the Nasdaq closing bell — he was the face of a technology company fostering social relationships. Facebook now is a media company with technology underpinnings. The weight to Media part of “social media” is high. The realization is slowly occurring in the corridors of power at Facebook. Sheryl Sandberg opted to not seek another term as a board of director at Disney — a media company.

When Mark said sorry on mass media, few days ago, he was focused on emotion and trust and not on geeky facts.

That is a sign of things to come — the acknowledgement that logic is insufficient.

What would this change entail for the engineers at Facebook?

Old assumption -we humans know how to rationally self police on rumor.

Media reality -a healthy respect for the power of gossip and how to mute its virality.

Thank you Cambridge Analytica– your bragging and the whistle blower effect of your former employee could precipitate diverse media working together for the betterment of this race. Our minds are malleable and we are realizing the limits of logic.

For you and me:

Next time you download an app and they ask for access to your phone book, your photos, your GPS etc — cringe. Do they need access to all or is there a minimum info they need to function? I believe apps will start to decipher between must have and nice to have. One key central source of data plunged more than 8 percent, lopping $46 billion off the value. Other social media power houses are revisiting their policies as well.

The unregulated days of data for app developers is sunsetting. New dawn is in the horizon. The night will lead us to it.

All because somebody started a rumor.

— — — -

Karthik Rajan

Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.

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