Cambridge Analytica and Our Lives Inside the Surveillance Machine

March 23, 2018

Cambridge Analytica and Our Lives Inside the Surveillance Machine


In 2006, a local pollster in Nepal was kidnapped by Maoist rebels while conducting opinion surveys on behalf of the American political strategist Stan Greenberg. The Maoists, who had been waging a long-running insurgency against the government, did not issue their typical ransom demands—money or weapons in exchange for the prisoner. No, they wanted the polling data that Greenberg’s team had collected, evidently to gauge the political climate in the country for themselves.

Alexander Nix, pictured here in 2016, was recently suspended from his position as the C.E.O. of Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the center of a data-mining scandal involving Facebook.Photograph by Joshua Bright / The Washington Post / Getty


The researchers eventually handed it over. In his book “Alpha Dogs,” the British journalist James Harding cites this story as an example of how the business of political campaigning is being remade, across the globe, by a profusion of fine-grained data about voters and their habits. Where the consultants of the nineteen-sixties and seventies obsessed over how to use television to beam ideal images of their clients into voters’ homes, today’s spinmasters hope that big data will allow them to manipulate voters’ deepest hopes and fears. “What’s the currency of the world now?” one of Greenberg’s partners asks Harding. “It’s not gold, it’s data. It’s the information.”

Twelve years later, the fixation on data as the key to political persuasion has exploded into scandal. For the past several days, the Internet has been enveloped in outrage over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy firm that supposedly helped Donald Trump win the White House. As with the Maoist rebels, this appears to be a tale of data-lust gone bad. In order to fulfill the promises that Cambridge Analytica made to its clients—it claimed to possess cutting-edge “psychographic profiles” that could judge voters’ personalities better than their own friends could—the company had to harvest huge amounts of information. It did this in an ethically suspicious way, by contracting with Aleksandr Kogan, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, who built an app that collected demographic data on tens of millions of Facebook users, largely without their knowledge. “This was a scam—and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, told the Times over the weekend. Kogan has said that he was assured by Cambridge Analytica that the data collection was “perfectly legal and within the limits of the terms of service.

Despite Facebook’s performance of victimization, it has endured a good deal of blowback and blame. Even before the story broke, Trump’s critics frequently railed at the company for contributing to his victory by failing to rein in fake news and Russian propaganda. To them, the Cambridge Analytica story was another example of Facebook’s inability, or unwillingness, to control its platform, which allowed bad actors to exploit people on behalf of authoritarian populism. Democrats have demanded that Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, testify before Congress. Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament, wants to talk to him, too. “Facebook needs to clarify before the representatives of five hundred million Europeans that personal data is not being used to manipulate democracy,” he said. On Wednesday afternoon, after remaining conspicuously silent since Friday night, Zuckerberg pledged to restrict third-party access to Facebook data in an effort to win back user trust. “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” he wrote on Facebook.

But, as some have noted, the furor over Cambridge Analytica is complicated by the fact that what the firm did wasn’t unique or all that new. In 2012, Barack Obama’s reëlection campaign used a Facebook app to target users for outreach, giving supporters the option to share their friend lists with the campaign. These efforts, compared with those of Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, were relatively transparent, but users who never gave their consent had their information sucked up anyway. (Facebook has since changed its policies.) As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written, Facebook itself is a giant “surveillance machine”: its business model demands that it gather as much data about its users as possible, then allow advertisers to exploit the information through a system so complex and opaque that misuse is almost guaranteed.

Just because something isn’t new doesn’t mean that it’s not outrageous. It is unquestionably a bad thing that we carry out much of our online lives within a data-mining apparatus that sells influence to the highest bidder. My initial reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, though, was jaded; the feeling came from having seen how often, in the past, major public outcries about online privacy led nowhere. In most cases, after the calls to delete Facebook die down and the sternly worded congressional letters stop being written, things pretty much go back to normal. Too often, privacy scandals boil down to a superficial fix to some specific breach or leak, without addressing how the entire system undermines the possibility of control. What exciting big-data technique will be revealed, six years from now, as a democracy-shattering mind-control tool?

Yet I eventually found reason to be genuinely repulsed by the story. On Monday, the U.K.’s Channel 4 published video footage of an undercover sting operation that it had conducted against Cambridge Analytica. A man working for the channel, posing as a political operative from Sri Lanka, met with the firm’s representatives to discuss hiring them for a campaign. On camera, over three meetings in various swanky hotels around London, C.A.’s employees offer an increasingly sordid account of their methods and capabilities. The most unseemly revelation—and, in the context of the sting, the most ironic—comes when Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s C.E.O., seems to offer to entrap the client’s political rivals with secretly videotaped bribes and rendezvous with sex workers. (Nix was suspended on Tuesday.)

Like much of the best investigative journalism, the Channel 4 video gives viewers the queasy sense of a rock being overturned and sinister things being exposed to the light. It is difficult to watch the video without becoming at least a little suspicious of the entire business of democracy, given how large a role political consultants such as Nix play in it these days. Perhaps it is naïve to be scandalized by the cravenness of political consultants in the age of Paul Manafort, whose global democratic-perversion tour took him from buffing the image of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in the nineteen-eighties, to running Trump’s campaign, or to fighting a fraud case for allegedly laundering his fees from the Ukrainian kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. But there was something shocking about the stark double identity of this posh “Old Etonian,” as all the British papers call Nix, who presented himself as a big-data wizard at marketing events but proposed basic gangsterism to clients in private. And in the same spiffy suit.

Watching the video makes you understand that the ethical difference between outright electoral corruption and psychographics is largely a matter of degree. Both are shortcuts that warp the process into something small and dirty. You don’t need to believe Cambridge Analytica’s own hype about the persuasive power of its methods to worry about how data-obsessed political marketing can undermine democracy. The model of the voter as a bundle of psychological vulnerabilities to be carefully exploited reduces people to mathematical inputs. The big debates about values and policies that campaigns are supposed to facilitate and take part in are replaced by psychographically derived messages targeted to ever-tinier slivers of voters who are deemed by an algorithm to be persuadable. The organization of all of online life by data-mining operations makes this goal seem attainable, while an industry of data scientists and pollsters pitch it as inevitable. Candidates, voters, and pundits, enthralled with the geek’s promise of omniscience, rush to buy in—at least until it’s used by someone they don’t like. Cambridge Analytica is as much a symptom of democracy’s sickness as its cause.

  • Adrian Chen joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.


The Keruak has spoken: Government will block portals and websites–1MDB is fake news

March 23, 2018

The Keruak has spoken: Government will block portals and websites–1MDB is fake news

The Keruak has spoken but he conveniently forgets that the regime he serves is Malaysia’s No.1 dispenser of fake news. The authorities in Singapore, Switzerland and the United States are fakers on 1MDB?

The government will block websites and portals that spread information with the intent of causing a ruckus before the 14th general election (GE14), Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said.

“We will work with the police and relevant agencies on the allegations. Of course, action will be taken against any party that violates the rules,” he is quoted as saying by Bernama.

Salleh said this after being asked about Police identifying 1,100 individuals and organisations that could potentially conduct a ‘surprise last minute attack’ and start a riot during GE14.

He said his ministry would conduct a thorough investigation before any action was taken.The government is set to table an anti-fake news bill in Parliament next week.

Salleh’s Deputy, Jailani Johari, told the Dewan Rakyat yesterday that any unverified information regarding 1MDB was considered fake news.

Previously Jailani had also said that media publishing “fake news” about 1MDB included The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Economist, Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) and MSNBC.



GE14: Last chance for change

March 22, 2018

GE14: Last chance for change

by Dennis Ignatius

GE14: Last chance for change

We are now at the cusp of GE14, one of the most momentous political events that any of us will quite possibly experience in our lifetime. Rarely in the history of a nation has so much depended upon a single decision: who we vote for will quite literally decide the destiny of our nation.

Image result for malaysia's ge-14

To be sure, many are piqued and frustrated that it has come down to a choice between Najib and Mahathir. But this election is much more than a choice between personalities; it is a choice between two very different futures for our nation.

Politically moribund

UMNO-BN has now been in power for some 60 years. Like all political parties that have overstayed their welcome, they have become politically moribund. They have lost their way, their integrity, their credibility. They have neither the vision to inspire nor the moral authority to lead.

In almost every area of governance and leadership they have failed our nation.They have been extraordinarily incompetent and reckless fiscally, forcing our nation into levels of debt that were unheard of before. Billions of ringgit in public funds have also been looted with utter impunity or squandered through mismanagement and waste. GST is the price we are paying for their profligacy.

The 1MDB scandal, in particular, has been especially damaging to our nation’s international credibility, not to mention the loss to the nation’s coffers. More than 50 years of diplomacy promoting and positioning our nation has gone down the drain as a result.

It should be clear by now that they do not have the political will to eradicate corruption. When the system jails those who expose corruption and protects the scoundrels who rob us, you know the battle against corruption is over, and we’ve lost.

Under their watch, many of our once proud national institutions have been compromised or reduced to mere appendages of the ruling party.

Despite having amassed more power than any other administration since independence, they still feel vulnerable, still feel the need for yet more power, yet more limits on our freedom. Executive power is now so pervasive that we teeter on the edge of autocracy.

Can we trust a political party that has consistently abused their power with yet more power? Under their watch, our democracy has been hollowed out; gerrymandering and malapportionment have made voting itself increasingly meaningless. In fact, this might well be the last meaningful elections to be held in Malaysia if UMNO-BN is returned to power.

In the meantime, life continues to be a struggle for many. Twelve percent of our young people below 24 are unemployed; thousands of graduates cannot find jobs; the majority of young workers cannot earn enough to live decently. And while Kuala Lumpur has more millionaires than Abu Dhabi, 90% of rural, mostly Malay households, have zero savings.

Image result for malaysia's ge-14

And this after 60 years of development, after decades of the NEP and other programmes.

Charting a different course

We must now ask ourselves whether or not we can afford another five years of UMNO-BN rule, another five years of the same failed policies that have impoverished our nation, undermined our unity and weakened our democracy. Can we afford another five years of corruption, scandal and international shame?

If we are willing to look beyond the personalities, if we are willing to overcome our fears and UMNO-BN’s scaremongering, if we are willing to settle for the pragmatic over the ideal, we might just discover that we actually have a unique opportunity to break with the past.

For the very first time, we have a multiracial coalition [Pakatan Harapan] led by experienced political leaders who are genuinely able to unite our nation behind a vision for reform and renewal. They may not be on the same page on all issues but they are united on the things that matter most – respect for the constitution, rule of law, national unity and good governance.

As for Mahathir, there is every indication that he will honour his commitment to ‘reformasi;’ it is his last hurrah and he wants to get it right. In any case, Anwar, Mat Sabu and Lim Kit Siang will be there to ensure that no one hijacks the reform agenda.

It won’t be the end of the struggle to reform our nation but it could well be the beginning that we have long dreamed of.

A second chance

Image result for malaysia's ge-14

It is going to be an uphill battle to unseat UMNO-BN but we are now closer than ever before. The future of our nation is in our hands. We must seize the moment and do everything in our power – campaign, donate, support and vote – to ensure victory.

Few nations get a second chance; this is our tryst with destiny and we must not squander it.

Politics and Malaysia’s Youth

March 22, 2018

Politics  and Malaysia’s Youth

by Voon Zhen Yi, Centre for Public Policy Studies
Image result for Malaysia's GE-14

Observing the Parliament of Malaysia or indeed any of Malaysia’s 13 state legislative assemblies, one notices that the corridors of power are packed with the elderly. There are no elected politicians between the ages of 15 to 24 in the country, and more than 70 per cent of parliamentarians are above the age of 50. This is not a coincidence — Malaysian youths face various forms of resistance culturally and institutionally when it comes to political participation.

 As a young person ascends the political ladder via party branches, they often find themselves sidelined in favour of older party members who have waited a long time to contest an election. The Asian mentality of filial piety creates a form of oligarchy, which has meant that youths are often making way for older but not necessarily more capable candidates.


One of the few means by which younger politicians are able to break into the political scene is if they have family members already in politics. One of the youngest members of Parliament in Malaysian history is current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was elected at the age of 23 in 1976. This was primarily due to the fact that he ran for a seat which was held by Abdul Razak (his father and Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, who had passed away that year). Najib won unopposed out of respect for the late Prime Minister.

Image result for Malaysia's Youth and Politics

Senior politicians elevating family members is not exclusive to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Lim Guan Eng, the son of Lim Kit Siang and the de facto head of the Democratic Action Party, was elected to the Parliament in 1986 when he was 24. De facto leader of Parti KeADILan Rakyat (the Justice Party), Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter Nurul Izzah, was elected to a parliamentary seat when she was 28 during the 2008 elections. This may not necessarily be political nepotism: it could merely reflect older family members teaching their young the ropes, or it could reflect that these younger politicians have gained the vision and aspiration to pursue a career in politics of their own accord. Nonetheless, having a family member in a senior political position undoubtedly clears the way.

There are also legislative barriers discouraging youths from getting involved in politics. Malaysia’s Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) prevents students from being involved in politics. In 2010, four students from a public Malaysian university faced disciplinary action for their alleged involvement in a by-election. Court actions found that the particular provision in the UUCA was unconstitutional and the Act has since been amended. Tertiary students can now, in theory, become members of a political party. But the Act continues to disallow active political participation. The situation is made worse by the fact that political parties are not allowed to set up branches in universities.

Image result for Malaysia's Youth and Politics

Falling political interest, particularly among young upper middle-class opposition voters, has further escalated with Mahathir’s return and alliance with the opposition. Many youths from these parties are unable to reconcile working with an arch foe whom many blame for Malaysia’s current woes. Dissatisfaction is being voiced through the #UndiRosak (spoilt votes) movement, which is urging voters to spoil their ballot deliberately in a show of protest towards both the Barisan Nasional and the opposition parties.

Youth in Malaysia feel that their votes will make little difference to an election outcome or that no party is different from the other. Many opposition supporters are unable to be optimistic as three-cornered fights will likely take place between the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, the ruling Barisan coalition and the Pan-Islamic Party. The result will likely see many marginal Pakatan seats recaptured by Barisan. In the previous two elections, the opposition was able to gain ground as they agreed to reconcile their differences and instead compete with one another in a unified struggle against the Barisan Nasional. This advantage is set to diminish substantially in the upcoming election.

Recent polls find that 70 per cent of Malaysia’s youth have no interest in politics. As of August 2017, there were still as many as 3.7 million people between the ages of 21 and 30 who had not yet registered to vote — a number that is large enough to alter the election outcome.

Such phenomena are observed throughout the region as youths show general reluctance to be politically involved. This trend is particularly worrying when one considers the prospects for Malaysia’s political future — the youth of today, who will inevitably become the leaders of tomorrow, will be unprepared and lack experience.

Image result for Malaysia's Youth and PoliticsDeformasi  Nasional 2050?


To aviod such an outcome, parties must show sincerity towards youth involvement in politics and deliberately create opportunities for their voice to be heard. This will be to the benefit of the various parties as youths are able to better relate to the needs of other youths, who currently comprise the largest segment of the adult population — an opportunity for vote capture that parties should recognise. Malaysia needs to realise that age and competence are separate matters.

Voon Zhen Yi is the Manager of Programme and Research at the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), Malaysia.

Anwar Ibrahim: The Rainmaker of Ideas

March 21, 2018

Anwar Ibrahim: The Rainmaker of Ideas–In celebration of his imminent release from Prison

By Pan Jin Ming

Image result for Din Merican on Anwar IbrahimAnwar Ibrahim–The Charismatic Ketua Umum, Parti KeADILan Rakyat


“God does not play dice,” Albert Einstein is known to have once said. He was referring to the symmetry and completeness of the universe. Even if the universe, as some physicists believe, continues to expand, its expansion is derived from clear mathematical formula.

But the vastness of the universe—-if one insists multiverse—-makes one prone to a state of forgetfulness. Invariably, “insan,” a Quranic description of humankind, that who is inclined to forget, is a key concept in Islamic hermeneutics. The latter may seem like a big word. But it means human interpretation of the revealed scripture.

One of the first Malaysian scholars to unpack the meaning of “insan,” was Professor Syed Naquib Al Attas, the original founder of the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) whose existence under International Islamic University (IIU) was discontinued; though there are discordant voices to restore it.

Professor Naquib Al Attas explained in “Faces of Islam,” one of the first Islamic programs in TV3 back in the mid 1980s, that it was precisely due to the forgetful nature of humankind, that God has to manifest Himself in the form of readable and recitable words that is the Quran.

Anwar Ibrahim, then in his mid 30s, appeared as one of the speakers of “Faces of Islam” too. Being a former student of Syed Naquib Alattas, Anwar Ibrahim naturally carried the flair of his grandmaster. But, through out the hour long interview by Dr Ziauddin Sardar, the host of the “Faces of Islam,” Anwar Ibrahim spoke time and again on the meaning of ‘Tawhid,’ or, the Unity of God.

In other words, while all of us may be different by the intentional designs of God, He nonetheless has a teleological view of how all of us should co-exist. In the mind of God, the best of the humankind were those who spoke “truths to power.”

Between 1980s and 2018, whether Anwar Ibrahim is in or out of incarceration due to trumped up charges, he has always been consistent in telling the truths.

He warned, for example, that 1MDB would explode into a financial disaster. Sadly, events have proved him right. Anwar Ibrahim, in his Malay book, “Menangani Perubahan,” literally to handle change in a deliberate manner, further attests to the importance of civil society existing side by side with the state.

Again, the proliferation of Bersih, Tindak, C4, and Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), even Sisters in Islam, have proven themselves vital and necessary to the creation of a just society, one governed by the Rule of Law.

In his heydays of UMNO, when Anwar Ibrahim was the Deputy President of the party, he was intent on giving due emphasis on Islam Madani, or, civil Islam. Such an Islamic concept would have served as a mirror to reflect on the flaws and failings of the state.

Image result for Din Merican on Anwar IbrahimThe Loneliness of a Long Distance Political Runner


In this sense, Anwar Ibrahim has always tried to don the role of a rain maker, albeit of the intellectual kind. When ideas and concepts were lacking in the dreary landscape of Malaysia, he was one of the first to introduce the works of Ismail Al Faruqi, Parvez Manzor, Usman Awang, A. Samad Said, indeed, Malik Ben Nabi and Sheikh Qaradawi.

Elsewhere, Anwar Ibrahim also encouraged more Malaysians to read the works of Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” or, Gai Eaton, or, even Professor Toshiko Izutsu and Professor Tu Wei Ming.

Image result for The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was a best seller when it was released in 1987 (Hardcover)

The generation of thinkers who had worked with Anwar Ibrahim gained amply from such a long and sophisticated reading list. The likes of Dr Mohammad Al Manuty, at one stage the president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM, had served him in good stead. Manuty, came away, well read and perpetually curious; while others like Kamaruddin Jaffar, another confidante of Anwar Ibrahim, too, did not abandon his scholastic leanings.

In fact, the current campus of the International Islamic University has Anwar Ibrahim to thank. It was during Anwar Ibrahim’s tenure as the Minister of Finance in the mid 1990s that the actual size of the International Islamic University was allowed to grow manifold in the Gombak campus.

In the eyes of many, Anwar Ibrahim may be the perennial political fighter. After all, his creed, “Lawan Tetap Lawan,” or, The Fight Must Go On, has always been his talismanic call in any general election.

But the truth is, Anwar Ibrahim is not so much what the contemporary parlance would call a ‘realist,’ as he is either a ‘magical realist,’ in the mould of Gabriella Marquez, a Noble playwright, or, a ‘constructivist.’

As a ‘magical realist,’ all things can happen. Like “The Count of Monte Cristo,” who was wrongly imprisoned, French author Victor Hugo wrote of a character who escaped his dreadful imprisonment to wreak revenge on those who sent him to the gallows.

Anwar Ibrahim, as Tun Dr Mahathir may attest, does not want his wife or his daughter, to hold a permanent grudge against Tun Dr Mahathir. The goal in life was to forgive, with a vision to move on, and up.

Anwar Ibrahim is not an enigmatic figure by virtue of his exotic reading habits. Rather, the strength of Anwar Ibrahim comes from his ability to challenge his readers to a serious read and new potential. The moment a person begins to keep up with his readings, and writings, that’s when s/he can grow exponentially.

Image result for The Asian Renaissance by Anwar Ibrahim

When the political tsunami in Malaysia comes right on time by the 14th general election, Anwar Ibrahim’s true power may rest in his ability to inspire the nation to devour their books once again, even if they may be in the form of surfing through Kindle or Good Reads.

In this sense, the upcoming tsunami of Malaysia, as preferred by Anwar Ibrahim, would be intellectual first, although having lost so much time, due to unfair imprisonment, Anwar Ibrahim may concurrently instigate people to read and do.

The role of a rainmaker is to fill up the lakes and dams. Only when the right policy knowledge is all dammed up, would Malaysia be ready for serious restructuring of the political economy of Malaysia.

The latter has now become a truculent version of its old self, devouring nothing else but the disposal income of the average citizens.

For a tsunami to wipe the slate of Malaysia clean, the place to begin is to read deeply and widely. Once this is done, academic knowledge imbued with democracy and respectful spirit of listening, would form the crucible of an actual policy or intellectual discourse.

When Malaysians of all colors and creeds can remind each other of the flaws faced by the country, than piecemeal solutions can be found.

Just like the ice cap mountains whose melted water can turn into a torrent, Anwar Ibrahim has the effect of triggering a tsunami in rural and urban areas that are thirsting for books, papers, magazines, and alternative media—-none of which are sheer pulp.

A true tsunami begins with throwing away the yoke of oppression and the post colonial mentality of fearing nothing but the state. Malaysia can go far, especially if more Malaysians are ready to be counted.

Also read my views on Anwar Ibrahim ( Published on  |  Modified on


The Malaysian DJ Blogger is blocked in Malaysia

March 21, 2018

The Malaysian DJ Blogger is Blocked in Malaysia


Image result for Din Merican


I have received a few phone calls and messages on my Facebook to say that they can no longer have access to my blog. Even ASTRO which has a surrogate blog (Google: Din Merican: the Malaysian DJ Blogger – Astro) has stopped posting since March 16, 2018.

Image result for albert einstein quotes

This is regrettable since my blog is intended to stimulate discussion and free exchange of views not only on Malaysian issues but also on current developments throughout the world. I hope my friends outside Malaysia are still able to do so.

Keeping on reading because I intend to post articles of high quality and share my views with you. Being moral equivalent is not option for me. Like Noam Chomsky, Bilahari Kausikan, Kishore Mahbubani, Fareed Zakaria, Tom Friedman, and academics like Joseph Stiglitz, Jomo Kwame Sundaram,  Terence Gomez,  Paul Krugman, Robert Reich,  Philosopher A.C Grayling, Jeffery Sachs, Laura Tyson, Steven Pinker, Nick Kristof,  who I admire and respect, I will speak the truth to power. Thanks for your support and insightful comments.–Din Merican