The negative effects of the digital divide

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was paying data analytics company Cambridge Analytica $80,000 a month to mine and analyze Facebook data, including profile information of Americans without their permission. In addition to using this information to craft targeted ad campaigns, Cambridge Analytica reportedly retained that data for later use for future political campaigns. This data dump essentially gave Cambridge Analytica access to “thousands of users’ data, a trove of information that put Facebook at odds with its own terms of service.” In other words, not only were these users in violation of their privacy, but they were also potentially exposed to data misuse by an external party. These implications have heightened debates in the wake of the controversy surrounding Facebook’s privacy practices, but they go much further than that.

Even if it was only Cambridge Analytica or a much smaller, parallel data analysis firm, we are talking about a disaster on Facebook’s scale — perhaps larger than a mere privacy breach. Due to the social and economic power of Facebook, these companies and political strategists would be able to take advantage of raw data — including racialized information — to increase their impact on America’s politics. This is a dangerous precedent, one that allows Donald Trump to fill positions in his administration with white supremacists and alt-righters. A flood of targeted “information” would have the effect of further marginalizing those who do not subscribe to these ideologies.

It’s important to remember, however, that this isn’t something that can happen by accident. Cambridge Analytica is a seeping, politically deeply ingrained pipeline that will ensure the ultimate power of a data-driven, white nationalist movement is locked into our society forever.

In short, Facebook’s data — its users’ data — has been handed over to an outside party that uses that data to target voters and influence elections. The United States doesn’t have a data protection crisis, it has a digital divide. In the most extreme scenario, these disparate demographics — Latinos, African Americans, and the growing immigrant population — may never come to a meeting of the minds.

Such a divide complicates the political landscape. Racial disparities in media use remain a red flag that racism still runs through the proverbial meat grinder of American life. Data on which publications people use isn’t the same as racial statistics on what race they live in — the numbers could be wrong. If the color of a newspaper’s paper, the socioeconomic status of its staff and the audience are not even equally distributed, well, those citizens may lack easy access to a political and economic world where their stories have equal weight, legitimacy and meaning.

Similar disparities exist in family and cultural networks, community culture and language. The issue of the digital divide may only hint at a larger issue: race on the web.

We can decide to work together, of course. In fact, we should all be in favor of both marriage equality and equal access to the web. But until Americans understand how our diverse communities are isolated in the digital space, we will be at an enduring disadvantage. We cannot keep rebuilding half-lives: We need to find a solution that truly connects us, and we need to do it soon.

The internet is changing the way we live and work, but many Americans continue to struggle to adapt. Congress created the Federal Trade Commission in the ’70s to protect the internet and to ensure a pluralistic web, where everyone has access. Congress needs to do more.

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