Watching Mark Zuckerberg run circles around Senators and Congresspeople in Facebook's I'm-Sorry-And-We'll-Do-Better-Next-Time Tour was disheartening but fascinating in a horror movie sort of way.

Zuckerberg had accepted the "invitation" of the US Congress — although not that of the British Parliament — to explain to the people's representatives how it came about that 87 million Facebook users had their private data combed by a London-based political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica is the spawn of SCL, a company partly owned by the arch-conservative Mercer family, hedge-funded billionaires who bankrolled Stephen Bannon, the Darth Vader of the American right-wing and former Trump campaign chairman.

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Bannon was also the vice-president of Cambridge Analytica until his banishment to the darkness over unflattering remarks he made about Trump, quoted in Fire And Fury.

The significance of these players becomes more clear over Cambridge Analytica's self-claim of "using data to change behaviour" and of "combining data mining, data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process".

Chris Wylie, a whistleblower, revealed that with sufficient data Cambridge Analytica was able to target voters in the US and Britain with tailored specific messages — false or true, whichever works — to influence the choice of Donald Trump as president and the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

As a result, Cambridge Analytica finds itself the subject of criminal investigation into both elections.

More important is the data, itself — it represents the privacy of millions of Facebook users. In exchange for using the platform to communicate with other people, users voluntarily handed over the rights to the use of information about themselves to the new media Masters of the Universe.

In front of the theatre of Congress, Zuckerberg — having prepped for weeks in practice sessions and having discarded his characteristic grey T-shirt and hoodie (rumoured to cost as much as $2000 — but that's according to social media, of course) in favour of a suit and tie to lend gravitas to his pitch — presented Facebook as a benign and socially useful device whose sole purpose is to connect everyone to everyone.

Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook's collection was, according to Zuckerberg, an aberration. Politicians seemed content to accept this narrative.

Jay Kuten
Jay Kuten

We all like to believe that our decisions are solely the product of our reasoning and who among us are more certain of their control of their own information than those who use "political consultants" to try to influence the votes of the rest of us.


Some pundits question the ability of Cambridge Analytica to change minds. Never mind the $63 billion that Zuckerberg has made by persuading advertisers and others that he can provide the tools to do exactly that.

What should be alarming is the comparison between the heated reactions to Edward Snowden's revelations about the government's ability to spy on everyone's communications — rationalised as providing security — and the relative calm complacency that has greeted the fact that a private corporation can sweep up the personal information of millions of people and use that information for any purpose.

It's not just Facebook that collects all that personal information. It's the giants like Google and the little ones, the apps we download who seem to offer something for nothing, and ask only to see inside our lives.

If Mark Zuckerberg, the wizard behind Facebook, was made to come out from behind the curtain, he seems to have persuaded the timid lions, the tin men and women and the scarecrows of the Congress that all is still well in the land, even without regulation.

But the Cambridge Analytica scandal should teach us all that we're not in Kansas anymore. Once Facebook achieves its goals and we're all connected, just who is it that will be pulling the strings?

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.