Cambridge Analytica may be guilty of hype. But data mining poisons our politics

It’s exactly the sort of conversation about politics that one would hope did not exist.

Two suits, in a swanky restaurant, blithely boasting about exploiting fears buried so deep inside our subconscious that most of us don’t even know we have them; claiming that, for the right price, they can creep invisibly into your head.

Channel 4’s sting, which showed executives at the digital marketing firm Cambridge Analytica telling undercover reporters what on earth it is they actually do, was just the final piece of this particular jigsaw. My indefatigable Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr put in the hard yards, over months of investigating the firm that boasts of using a combination of data and behavioural science to laser-target voters and thus help put Donald Trump in the White House.

But until now it’s been difficult for many people to visualise how the unauthorised use of our personal data, or the use of social media profiles to manipulate our votes, looks in practice. It sounds bad, obviously. We clearly should care. But it’s all so complicated, and life is busy. The risks of letting tech giants plough through our holiday snaps seem abstract and remote compared with the instant gratification of social media likes and shares and gossip.

Well, it’s not so remote now. Facebook had $36bn wiped off its shares on Monday following Cadwalladr’s revelation that personal data from 50 million American Facebook users, obtained by an academic using privileged access granted for research purposes, was then passed on to Cambridge Analytica.

And now we know what sort of hands it ended up in. When approached by undercover reporters, posing as wealthy clients seeking to get chosen politicians elected in Sri Lanka, Cambridge Analytica executives suggested all sorts of dubious miracles might be possible. Maybe a rival could be made a financial offer he couldn’t refuse, with the resulting…

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