It is safe to assume that the recent turn of events surprises no one. Facebook is finally under scrutiny for its alleged role in leaking the personal data of nearly 50 million users which shaped political events such as Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Elections of 2016, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. The crisis itself involves a data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica that played a significant role in bringing Donald Trump to power in America. Excellent and daring journalism by the British show Channel 4 News revealed how executives at Cambridge Analytica were willing to influence local elections in Sri Lanka by discrediting political rivals through underhand tactics such as staging false encounters with escorts and catching them on camera. The channel’s investigation also revealed how the data analytics company played a similarly sinister role in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 elections by manipulating the personal data of millions of Facebook users. For its part, Facebook’s culpability lies in its inability to prevent third parties from accessing the private data of its users. In 2014, 270,000 Facebook users participated in a ‘personality quiz’ on Facebook. These users were unaware that the test in fact extracted information of these persons’ Facebook friends as well, eventually gaining access to the personal data of nearly fifty million people. Ostensibly, the access to more political news and to products that we are interested in contributes to technological advancements to make our lives easier. But in reality, this manipulation of data comes at the cost of our privacy and consent This data was later shared with Cambridge Analytica which then used data models to disseminate pro-Trump propaganda and influence users’ views towards Donald Trump’s election campaign in the 2016 election. Facebook is thus under immense pressure for its utter lack of control and its mismanagement of users’ personal data. Although Facebook suspended the application that started the personality test in 2014, whistle-blower Sandy Parakilas — who used to work at Facebook — claims that Facebook’s checks to prevent this leakage of data to third parties are ‘non-existent’. This sordid episode highlights the dangers that surround social media and the increasing ‘virtualisation’ of our personal lives. Although it is true that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized communications and news-telling, it is equally true that they have made all of us vulnerable to influence from state organs, intelligence agencies and corporations. Everything we say or do is recorded on social media and gives fodder to companies such as Cambridge Analytica to influence our opinions and shape political events. Social media platforms remain active sources for people to express their political viewpoints — and rightly so, but these supposedly innocuous expressions of our personal opinions are then used by data mining companies to feed us propaganda that promotes their own sinister agendas. Similarly, Facebook has also been at the vanguard of promoting a pervasive form of consumerism that thrives on an active social media presence. Marketing and data analytics agencies assess our interests and likes on social media platforms, and accordingly suggest products that we might be interested in buying. On the surface, this access to more political news and to products that we are interested in consuming gives credit to technological advancements that make our lives easier. Dig a little deeper, and we witness how this manipulation of data rests solely on violating our privacy and which negates any sense of consent. It violates all norms of privacy because companies such as Cambridge Analytica are misusing the personal data of millions of users. And it completely ignores consent because when we express political views on social media, we do not consent to third parties using these views to shove propaganda down our throats. Our online presence also makes us vulnerable to profiling from certain states and intelligence agencies. It is true that many nations such as the United States silence dissent and police minority voices — including of Muslims, leftists and ethnic minorities—by scrutinizing our private data, and by holding us culpable for something as innocuous as ‘liking’ an article or a page on Facebook. This near-present surveillance of the internet, in fact, is a far more potent tool to silence dissent and to force opposition movements into submission by denying them the space to organize or to grow intellectually. Unfortunately, the near ubiquitous presence of the internet and of social media suggests that the struggle to regain control over our own words and over our online presence is an uphill battle. However, we must take the first step by holding large corporations such as Facebook responsible for manipulating our data and for surreptitiously influencing political events. For it is these large corporations that benefit from the rise of demagogues such as Donald Trump who promulgate tax-cuts and benefit the CEOs of these corporations. We must also criticize the mass-consumerism that is coming to define our society and which is a product of the rapid spread of social media and of e-marketing. There is no doubt that doing all of this is an immense challenge. But it is a challenge that we must earnestly accept and struggle for, for it is the only way we can make the virtual space safe for all of us. The writer graduated from Aitchison College and from Cornell University with a Bachelors in Economics and History. He also studied at Oxford University and his interests include studying the politics of class, gender and race. firstname.lastname@example.org Published in Daily Times, March 26th 2018.