Fake News Bill will gravely impair what remains of free speech and the right to dissent in Malaysia


April 1, 2018

Former Malaysian Ambassador: Fake News Bill will  gravely impair what remains of free speech and the right to dissent in Malaysia

by Dennis Ignatius@www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT | Despite mounting domestic opposition, the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak appears determined to ram through Parliament an odious bill ostensibly intended to curb fake news.

Though the government insists that the law is not intended to stop people from exercising their right to freedom of speech as provided for in the Federal Constitution, there is every reason to be seriously concerned. Under the guise of curbing fake news, the bill will gravely impair what remains of free speech and the right to dissent. The consequences will be devastating.

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Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) Chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail says “”The ( Malaysian) government’s track record in utilising laws for reasons other than its intended purpose is arguably questionable,”

An array of civil society and human rights groups, journalists, lawyers, politicians and prominent national leaders are in unanimous agreement that the pending bill represents a fatal assault on our democracy. If it is passed by Parliament, and the indications are that it will (thanks to the shameful dereliction of duty of so many of our MPs), it will mean the end of the road for democracy in Malaysia.

The draft bill defines “fake news” as “any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas”. It is a definition so vague and wide that it enables the government to go after anyone anywhere for any report, view or opinion. Nothing and no one will be safe from its reach.

As well, the scope of the bill is so expansive that it can be applied to anything from dubious deals with China to the scandalous conduct of officials. It gives the government the power to black out anything it doesn’t like or wants to hide.

And those found guilty of maliciously creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating or disseminating fake news can be punished with a fine of up to RM500,000 or up to six years imprisonment (reduced from the original 10 after protests). Even someone who provides financing to a publication or blog that is charged with disseminating fake news can be liable.

As well, the scope of the bill is so expansive that it can be applied to anything from dubious deals with China to the scandalous conduct of officials. It gives the government the power to black out anything it doesn’t like or wants to hide.

And those found guilty of maliciously creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating or disseminating fake news can be punished with a fine of up to RM500,000 or up to six years imprisonment (reduced from the original 10 after protests). Even someone who provides financing to a publication or blog that is charged with disseminating fake news can be liable.

In comparison to penalties provided for under other statutes, these punishments are excessive and harsh and appear designed to terrorise citizens into submission and conformity.

It is often said that he who controls the news shapes the way people think; shape the way people think and you have power to manipulate an entire nation. And that is what this is really about and why it is so insidious.

Protecting UMNO-BN

In making the government (read UMNO) the final arbitrator of truth and falsehood, the bill will also empower UMNO to ensure that only its narrative of events prevails. There’ll be no room for criticism, dissenting views and opposing opinions. Investigative journalism and reporting on corruption and scandals in high places will cease.

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In a foretaste of what is to come, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry warned only a few days ago of “stern actions” against those “propagating and spreading fake news” in relation to the 1MDB scandal, with officials insisting that information from sources other than the Malaysian government will be considered fake news.

In other words, it might soon be impossible to discuss the 1MDB issue objectively or to disagree with the government’s take on the issue.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this bill is not about protecting the nation’s security and stability but about protecting an increasingly unpopular political party from the people, shielding their misdeeds and failures from public scrutiny and accountability. It is not fake news that’s the target but the truth itself. It’s a new low even for Umno-BN.

And the haste with which they are pushing through this bill – in the dying days of the current Parliament – suggests that they intend to use this bill to prevent the opposition from making corruption and malfeasance an election issue. Unable to defend their disgraceful record in office, they have opted to muzzle their critics instead.

The dark shadow of tyranny grows long over our nation. The lights are going out on our democracy. This may well be the last time that any of us will be able to freely express our views.

One small sliver of hope remains to us before the lights go out completely – GE14. We must act now to safeguard what’s left of our democracy by denying this government another term in office. Make no mistake: a vote for Umno-BN is a vote for the final end of our democracy.


DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former Malaysian Ambassador. He blogs here.

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship


March 31, 2018

The Washington Post Editorial: Malaysia’s Fake News Bill is Censorship

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/malaysias-ploy-to-punish-fake-news-is-really-just-censorship/2018/03/29/f8d8c75c-32ac-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html?utm_term=.b00993467d80

By Editorial Board

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All right-thinking Malaysians are one with Nazir in abhorring fake news, especially those based of lies and falsehoods maliciously aimed at inciting hatred or ill-will, but the Anti-Fake News Bill is not the answer to the problem of combating such fake news.–Lim Kit Siang

MALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak is no stranger to muzzling free expression. His government has used existing laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists for satire and criticism of Mr. Najib, who has been embroiled in an epic corruption scandal. Now the Malaysian cabinet has gone a step further, proposing a law that would impose stiff fines and jail sentences on those who publish what it deems “fake news.” The proposed law is a warning of the danger when governments decide what is true and what is not.

Mr. Najib, seeking reelection to a third term, is being investigated by several countries, including the United States, on allegations that he and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own use, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. He has denied wrongdoing involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB. But a surefire outcome of the law, should it be passed, would be to chill media discussion of the corruption scandal.

The legislation would define as fake news “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It would cover those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news, and impose a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to $128,000, or both, at the whim of the government. The law would apply to those overseas as well as inside Malaysia. A fact sheet outlining hypothetical examples includes anyone who knowingly offers false information to a blogger, as well as cases that seem to encompass acts of slander or false advertising.

We don’t take lightly the problem of truth in today’s information whirlwind. But an open society must guarantee the right to express a wide range of views, including criticism of its leaders, with very few limitations, accompanied by due process and rule of law. The Malaysian proposal looks more like a tool of arbitrary government control and intimidation. Singapore is holding hearings on a similar scheme. Other closed systems, such as China, long ago perfected the art. It is called censorship.

President Trump has championed the moniker “fake news” to mean any news report he dislikes, and to undermine the legitimacy of the news media by creating confusion over whether news is true or false. An army of people on social media likewise muddy the waters, spreading reports that are corrosive and malicious. In this environment, a free society has to be dedicated to unfettered speech, allowing it to flourish and regulating it extremely carefully. Yes, publishers, platforms and people must be vigilant for garbage and pollution in the news stream. But imposing governmental controls will only yield one thing: real fake news.

Malaysia’s anti-fake news law raises media censorship fears

Malaysia’s Ersatz Democracy: Fake News Legislation


March 28, 2018

Malaysia’s Ersatz  Democracy: Fake News Legislation–10 year Jail Term for “News Fakers”Proposed

https://www.sfgate.com/world/article/Malaysia-looks-to-punish-fake-news-with-10-years-12782351.php

Critics fear the move is a crackdown on dissent ahead of a general election.

By Eileen Ng

https://www.independent.ie/world-news/malaysia-looks-to-punish-fake-news-with-10-years-in-jail-36744328.html

Offenders could face massive fines or up to 10 years in jail under the plans, which campaigners fear is a cover for cracking down on dissent before a general election (AP)

Malaysia’s government has proposed new legislation to outlaw fake news and punish offenders with a 10-year jail sentence – a move slammed by critics as a bid to crack down on dissent ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been dogged by a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving an indebted state fund, and rights activists fear the new law could be used to criminalise news reports and critical opinions on government misconduct.

A general election must be held by August, but is widely expected in the next few weeks.

Image result for Najib'--The Malaysian Kleptocrat

The anti-fake news bill, which must be approved by Parliament, calls for penalties for those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news of 10 years in jail, a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (£90,000), or both.

The bill defines fake news as “any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”

It covers all mediums and extends to even foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected.

Opposition MP Ong Kian Ming tweeted: “This is an attack on the press and an attempt to instil fear among the (people)” before the general election.

Government officials have said the law is needed to protect public harmony and national security. They have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news as a key weapon to win votes and warned that any news on the indebted 1MDB state fund that had not been verified by the government is fake.

The US and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Mr Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt.

The US Justice Department says at least 4.5 billion dollars (£3.18 billion) were stolen from 1MDB by associates of Mr Najib, and it is working to seize 1.7 billion dollars (£1.2 billion) taken from the fund to buy assets in the US, potentially its largest asset seizure ever.

Mr Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has sacked critics in his government and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted three years ago.

Support for Mr Najib’s ruling coalition has dwindled in the last two elections. In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition. Yet analysts say Mr Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, unfavourable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.

Critics say the anti-fake news bill will add to a range of repressive laws — including a sedition law, a press and publications act, an official secrets act and a security act — that have been used against critics, violated freedom of expression and undermined media freedom.

Press Association

Facebook, Google, your reign may soon be over


March 26, 2018

Facebook, Google, your reign may soon be over

For Facebook: It is now about rebuilding trust

We might look back on 2017 as the last moment of unbridled faith and optimism in the technology industry. The revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data — mining more than 50 million users’ personal information — came at a time when people were already considering appropriate ways to curb the handful of tech companies that dominate not just the American economy but also, increasingly, American life.

As the information revolution took off in the 1990s, we got caught up in the excitement of the age, along with the novelty of the products and their transformative power. We were dazzled by the wealth created by nebbishy 25-year-olds, who became instant billionaires — the ultimate revenge of the nerds. And in the midst of all this, as the United States was transitioning into a digital economy, we neglected to ask: What is the role for government?

The image of technology companies springing forth from unfettered free markets was never quite accurate. Today’s digital economy rests on three major technologies: the computer chip, the Internet and GPS. All three owe their existence in large part to the federal government. The latter two were, of course, developed from scratch, owned and run by the government until they were opened up to the private sector. Most people don’t realize that GPS — the global positioning system of satellites and control centers that is so crucial to the modern economy — is, even now, owned by the U.S. government and operated by the Air Force.

And yet, as these revolutionary technologies created new industries, destroyed others and reshaped communities and cities, we simply assumed that this was the way of the world and that nothing could be done to affect it. That would have been socialist-style interference with the free market.

But the result does not seem one that a libertarian would celebrate. We now have a tech economy dominated by just a few mammoth companies that effectively create a barrier to entry for newcomers. In Silicon Valley, new start-ups don’t even pretend that they will become independent companies. Their business plan is to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple. The situation looks more like an oligopoly than a free market. In fact, through the age of big tech, the number of new business start-ups has been declining.

The other noticeable consequence has been the erosion of privacy, highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. Because technology companies now deal with billions of consumers, any individual is a speck, a tiny data point. And since for most technology companies the individual consumer is also a product, whose information is sold to others for a profit, he or she is doubly disempowered. The tech giants would surely respond that they have democratized information, created products of extraordinary power and potential, and transformed life for the better. All of this is true. So did previous innovations such as the telephone, the automobile, antibiotics and electricity. But precisely because of these products’ power and transformational impact, it was necessary for the government to play some role in protecting individuals and restraining the huge new winners in the economy.

Change is likely to come from two directions. Regulatory action in the West will give more control to the individual. The European Union has established rules, which will go into effect on May 25, that will make it much easier for people to know how their data is being used and to limit that use. It is likely that the United States will follow suit.

The second direction is even more intriguing and comes from the East. Until recently, as Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani pointed out to me, there were just a handful of digital platforms with more than 1 billion users, all run by companies in the United States or China, such as Google, Facebook and Tencent. But now India has its own billion-person digital platform: the extraordinary “Aadhaar” biometric ID system, which includes almost all of the nation’s 1.3 billion residents (and whose creation Nilekani oversaw). It is the only one of these massive platforms that is publicly owned. That means it does not need to make money off user data. It’s possible to imagine that in India, it will become normal to think of data as personal property that individuals can keep or rent or sell as they wish in a very open and democratic free market. India might well become the global innovator for individuals’ data rights.

Add innovations in blockchain technology, and we are likely to see even more challenges to the current gatekeepers of the Internet in the near future.

Whether from East or West, top down or bottom up, change is coming to transform the world of technology. Properly handled, it can produce freer markets and greater individual empowerment.

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(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Day of Reckoning for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook: Rebuilding Trust


March 25, 2018

Day of Reckoning for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook: Rebuilding Trust

Revelations about the depths of Facebook’s failure to protect our data have finally pulled back the curtain, observers say

One expert said the Cambridge Analytica revelations will finally get people to ‘pay attention not just to Facebook but the entire surveillance economy’.
One expert said the Cambridge Analytica revelations will finally get people to ‘pay attention not just to Facebook but the entire surveillance economy’. Composite: Bloomberg

“Dumb fucks.” That’s how Mark Zuckerberg described users of Facebook for trusting him with their personal data back in 2004. If the last week is anything to go by, he was right.

Since the Observer reported that the personal data of about 50 million Americans had been harvested from Facebook and improperly shared with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, it has become increasingly apparent that the social network has been far more lax with its data sharing practices than many users realised.

As the scandal unfurled over the last seven days, Facebook’s lackluster response has highlighted a fundamental challenge for the company: how can it condemn the practice on which its business model depends?

“This is the story we have been waiting for so people will pay attention not just to Facebook but the entire surveillance economy,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

Since Zuckerberg’s “dumb fucks” comment, Facebook has gone to great lengths to convince members of the public that it’s all about “connecting people” and “building a global community”. This pseudo-uplifting marketing speak is much easier for employees and users to stomach than the mission of “guzzling personal data so we can micro-target you with advertising”.

In the wake of the revelations that Cambridge Analytica misappropriated data collected by Dr Aleksandr Kogan under the guise of academic research, Facebook has scrambled to blame these rogue third parties for “platform abuse”. “The entire company is outraged we were deceived,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

However in highlighting the apparent deceit, the company has been forced to shine a light on its underlying business model and years of careless data sharing practices.

Sure, the data changed hands between the researcher and Cambridge Analytica in apparent violation of Kogan’s agreement with Facebook, but everything else was above board. The amount of data Cambridge Analytica got hold of and used to deliver targeted advertising based on personality types – including activities, interests, check-ins, location, photos, religion, politics, relationship details – was not unusual in the slightest. This was a feature, not a bug.

 Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’ – video

‘Extremely friendly to app developers’

There are thousands of other developers, including the makers of the dating app Tinder, games such as FarmVille, as well as consultants to Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, who slurped huge quantities of data about users and their friends – all thanks to Facebook’s overly permissive “Graph API”, the interface through which third parties could interact with Facebook’s platform.

Facebook opened up in order to attract app developers to join Facebook’s ecosystem at a time when the company was playing catch-up in shifting its business from desktops to smartphones. It was a symbiotic relationship that was critical to Facebook’s growth.

“They wanted to push as much of the conversation, ad revenue and digital activity as possible and made it extremely friendly to app developers,” said Jeff Hauser, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Now they are complaining that the developers abused them. They wanted that. They were encouraging it. They may now regret it but they knowingly unleashed the forces that have led to this lack of trust and loss of privacy.”

The terms were updated in April 2014 to restrict the data new developers could get hold of, including people’s friends’ data, but only after four years of access to the Facebook firehose. Companies that plugged in before April 2014 had another year before access was restricted.

“There are all sorts of companies that are in possession of terabytes of information from before 2015,” said Hauser. “Facebook’s practices don’t bear up to close, informed scrutiny nearly as well as they look from the 30,000ft view, which is how people had been viewing Facebook previously.”

Cambridge Analytica claims it helped get Trump elected by using data to target voters on Facebook.
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Cambridge Analytica claims it helped get Trump elected by using data to target voters on Facebook. Photograph: Win Mcnamee/AFP/Getty Images

For too long consumers have thought about privacy on Facebook in terms of whether their ex-boyfriends or bosses could see their photos. However, as we fiddle around with our profile privacy settings, the real intrusions have been taking place elsewhere.

“In this sense, Facebook’s ‘privacy settings’ are a grand illusion. Control over post-sharing – people we share to – should really be called ‘publicity settings’,” explains Jonathan Albright, the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “Likewise, control over passive sharing – the information people [including third party apps] can take from us – should be called ‘privacy settings’.”

Essentially Facebook gives us privacy “busywork” to make us think we have control, while making it very difficult to truly lock down our accounts.

‘The biggest issue I’ve ever seen’

Facebook is dealing with a PR minefield. The more it talks about its advertising practices, the more the #DeleteFacebook movement grows. Even the co-founder of WhatsApp Brian Acton, who profited from Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of his app, this week said he was deleting his account.

“This is the biggest issue I’ve ever seen any technology company face in my time,” said Roger McNamee, Zuckerberg’s former mentor.

“It’s not like tech hasn’t had a lot of scandals,” he said, mentioning the Theranos fraud case and MiniScribe packing actual bricks into boxes instead of hard drives. “But no one else has played a role in undermining democracy or the persecution of minorities before. This is a whole new ball game in the tech world and it’s really, really horrible.”

Facebook first discovered that Kogan had shared data with Cambridge Analytica when a Guardian journalist contacted the company about it at the end of 2015. It asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the data and revoked Kogan’s apps’ API access. However, Facebook relied on Cambridge Analytica’s word that they had done so.

When the Observer contacted Facebook last week with testimony from a whistleblower stating that Cambridge Analytica had not deleted the data, Facebook’s reaction was to try to get ahead of the story by publishing its own disclosure late on Friday and sending a legal warning to try to prevent publication of its bombshell discoveries.

Then followed five days of virtual silence from the company, as the chorus of calls from critics grew louder, and further details of Facebook’s business dealings emerged.

A second whistleblower, the former Facebook manager Sandy Parakilas, revealed that he found Facebook’s lack of control over the data given to outside developers “utterly horrifying”. He told the Guardian that he had warned senior executives at the company that its lax approach to data protection risked a major breach, but that he was discouraged from investigating further.

At around the same time, it emerged that the co-director of the company that harvested the Facebook data before passing it to Cambridge Analytic is a current employee at Facebook. Joseph Chancellor worked alongside Kogan at Global Science Research, which exfiltrated the data using a personality app under the guise of academic research.

Brittany Kaiser, former Cambridge Analytica Director: ‘I voted for Bernie’ – video

Demand for answers

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic called for answers. In the US, the Democratic senator Mark Warner called for regulation, describing the online political advertising market as the “wild west”.

“Whether it’s allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency,” he said.

The Federal Trade Commission plans to examine whether the social networking site violated a 2011 data privacy agreement with the agency over its data-sharing practices.

“I think they are in a very bad situation because they have long benefited from the tech illiteracy of the political community,” said Hauser.

The backlash spooked investors, wiping almost $50bn off the valuation of the company in two days, although the stock has since rallied slightly.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg finally broke his silence in a Facebook post acknowledging that the policies that allowed the misuse of data were a “breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it”.

The social network is facing calls for answers from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pinterest
The social network is facing calls for answers from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

 

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, added her own comment: “We know that this was a major violation of people’s trust, and I deeply regret that we didn’t do enough to deal with it.”

The company will investigate apps that had access to “large amounts of information” before the 2014 changes and audit thousands of apps that show “suspicious activity”. The company will also inform those whose data was “misused”, including people who were directly affected by the Kogan operation.

These actions don’t go far enough, said Vaidhyanathan. “Facebook has a history of putting on that innocent little boy voice: ‘Oh I didn’t know that I shouldn’t hold the cat by its tail,’” he said. “I think we’re tired of it at this point.”

These problems were pointed out by scholars years ago, said Robyn Caplan, a researcher at Data & Society, but Facebook’s response was slow and insufficient.

“They have been trying to put out a lot of little fires but we need them to build a fire department,” she said.

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.