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Rediff.com  » News » All ye sheep: Beware the Facebook Wolf

All ye sheep: Beware the Facebook Wolf

May 05, 2018 13:04 IST

'The thing we fondly call FB has come a long way from the cute baby dimples it had in 2006.'
'Today the dimples are long gone and FB looms over us as Mr Hyde, designing the news we see with algorithms that determine what we might want to see; allowing companies to empty our pockets as we hug it good morning and to lobotomise us as we sleep,' says Mitali Saran.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

There was a terrific cartoon in The New Yorker some years ago: A line of people marches towards a spot marked 'Life Goals', but just before reaching it, each of them falls, turn by fatalistic turn, into a bottomless pit labelled 'Facebook'.

The thing we fondly call FB has come a long way from the cute baby dimples it had in 2006, though even then it was slyly sending out signup invitations to the contacts of signed-up users without their knowledge.

It quickly became a worldwide addiction in its benign Dr Jekyll avatar -- nurturing social ties, indulging our narcissism by telling us which movie star we look like, engaging us in conversation, allowing us to quietly judge each others' views, clothes, weight, and personality, and allowing us to plan parties with ease.

Soon billions of people were mainlining its perks, in exchange offering up their self-curated online profiles to companies that use them to better target advertisements and products.

 

Today the dimples are long gone and FB looms over us as Mr Hyde, designing the news we see with algorithms that determine what we might want to see; allowing companies to empty our pockets as we hug it good morning and to lobotomise us as we sleep.

It is entities like FB that make people say 'Data is the new oil', with dollar signs in their eyes, and it has managed to truly piss us off.

With the Cambridge Analytica scandal blowing up into a political superstorm, FB has shed $50 billion in the stock market, users -- including one of the co-founders of Whatsapp -- are voting with the #deletefacebook hashtag and the actual delete button.

It turns out that there is such a thing as bad press.

But it's not just Facebook users who should be upset.

We are all surrounded, everywhere in the world, with people whose job it is to turn us into vehicles for some product, or some view, or some behaviour.

Legitimate persuasion is constantly playing second fiddle to, at the crudest level, outright coercion, and at the most sophisticated level, subtle manipulation of weaknesses.

The only thing we have with which to guard our minds and our autonomy, is the ability to obtain information and to view it critically.

That critical ability is only natural to a few extraordinary people; most of the rest of us have to be trained to develop it.

No wonder, then, that the same kinds of people who most benefit from sleazy data-driven manipulation, are most implacably set against the kind of education that empowers people and sets them free.

We might all have been dumb enough to ignore the business model that makes monkeys of us; but it's heartening to see people push back when they discover that someone is using their hopes and fears, as Cambridge Analytica's political division managing director Mark Turnbull admitted in a secret recording by Channel 4, to manipulate them into not just buying a certain shoe, but voting for a certain candidate.

We should all thank Christopher Wylie, the inventor of this charlatanism, for growing a conscience and blowing the whistle on his own creation.

Similarly, we should thank the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University for refusing to accept the bluntest instruments of anti-intellectualism in that fine institution.

They were striking to protest an absurd insistence on attendance marking that gets in their way, and that no doubt is trying to ally itself to the popular narrative that has been spread by the current government and its media machine, of JNU students as seditious parasites who stay in college for decades sucking up taxpayer money while drinking beer and throwing used condoms all over campus.

They are demanding that allegations of sexual harassment be taken seriously and acted on, instead of maligning the women making the complaints.

They are protesting the replacement of excellent, qualified staff, including the head of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, with people who are unfit for the job for a variety of reasons from inexperience to irrelevance.

The only people served by a nation of sheep are the people leading the sheep.

It's easy to be seduced by the efficacy of a certain kind of tactic, but tactics inform the kind of nation you build.

It's time for citizens to throw off complacency and get behind the idea that winning is not the point.

The point is to empower and free ourselves by encouraging the ability to retain control over our own minds and destinies.

The shepherds will not be helping, so the sheep are going to have to start to count.

Mitali Saran
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