Are we being manipulated by social media crooks and government propaganda in a big way?

Cambridge Analytica's alleged use of Facebook users's data for election targeting has shaken people's confidence worldwide.

The Observer first reported that this company mined data of 50 million Facebook users and used complex tools to deliver them targeted ads during the last US presidential elections. Facebook has responded by saying that its data was abused by a rogue firm. Cambridge Analytica's CEO has explained it away saying that in 2014 elections, an affiliate company used Facebook data without user consent and when the fact came to their knowledge, they erased the data.

After that, Facebook has issued full page ads in Europe, appeared before Singapore house committee, apologized publicly, committed to look into its data in response to India's strong message. The saga continues.

In an in-house document, Cambridge Analytics has claimed that it used Google, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to favor Donald Trump in the elections. But targeting ads is not a crime; it is a science. What has raised eyebrows that users' data has been given away for political purposes without their consent. The company, known to brag its influence, has been claiming big gains for its clients in other places too.

In India, the top two parties are engaged in an ugly fight blaming each other for using that same company for social media campaigns. It started with the company's assertion that in 2010 elections in a state, Bihar, it helped its clients win by a thumping majority. The other side of the story is that it was used by the opposition party in 2009 general elections.

The political dealings of the election consultancy firm and its claims to have influenced elections is the first cause for worry. Are we being manipulated in a big way? Are elections won by mind games and money rather than based on performance and socio-economic issues? Are democratic processes being subverted?

The second worry, of course, is that our data is not safe. Recall the Equifax data leak late last year and the revelation of Yahoo's millions of accounts being compromised. If those were leaks, this one is even more serious. It is giving data to firms for commercial and political purposes without consent and without any regard for privacy and web security.

The third and a highly sinister one: Is social media being used for manipulating the masses? Yes, it is.

In pre-social media times, manipulations were more difficult and they were prone to exposure. Now, with our browsing and purchase data getting captured and analyzed to the last bit, these biggies know almost everything about us. They also know, how with a little suggestion here and there they can mold our opinions and make us do their bidding. And they are evolving stronger analytical tools by the day.

The Russina hand in 2014 US elections is a case in point. Previously it was Facebook and Twitter who were blamed to have harbored accounts that tried to twist the elections. Now Tumblr has revealed that the blogging platform was used by Russian users for running a disinformation campaign before the elections. But it looks too small an affair going by what Cambridge Analytica is doing publicly and perhaps legally (beyond sharing/ stealing of data from social media giants).

Fake news is blamed for twisting information to suit the manipulators, political or otherwise. The damage is done before it is exposed that the news was biased, fake. What is more unfortunate is that while social giants do not seem to be too keen to kill fake news (despite their claims to be doing their best), political parties and businesses are stealthily using companies specializing in manipulative practices.

Technology provides the social biggies, marketing firms, analytics firms and government agencies very powerful tools to easily know relevant facts about millions of people and easily serve them messages that can influence, even brainwash, them.

In China, the complete control of the government over native chat apps and social media entities and purging of content from foreign social media gives the government not only full control over what is being spread to people, but also all the power and tools to spread propaganda. China, North Korea and despotic countries in Africa cannot show the torch to humanity, but nations in which democratic rule is in place and democratic traditions are strong are now at the risk of losing these virtues at social as well as political levels. Citizens of such nations must feel concerned and raise voices.