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You were being manipulated long before Cambridge Analytica came along

If you are anything like me then you will have been scratching your head trying to make sense of the scale—and ostentatiousness—of some of the outrage following the Cambridge Analytica scandal this week.

“Breach of trust”

A year-long investigation by The Observer and Channel 4 News has revealed that the British company was using millions of people’s Facebook data to create psychological models and profiles to target specific material to them to influence their political decisions, used heavily in Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016.[1] People were targeted with what was effectively propaganda tailored to them from what they thought were multiple reliable sources, thus creating and sustaining what some have called an “artificial reality” around them. The firm and its sister companies have also come under scrutiny for an alleged role in the EU referendum “hijacking democracy”.[2]

Much of the outrage has, rightly so, been over the “breach of trust” of millions of people’s personal data—every “like” and dislike, private message, status update, and so on—allegedly being harvested and sold in an unethical way. Facebook has fallen into a bit of a PR disaster, with #DeleteFacebook trending, although unlikely to dent its “colossal reach”.[3] It was never a huge secret that companies have been buying the data of swathes of people to target restaurant or holiday advertisements to them. But it seems that targeting people with narratives tailored to them to get them to think or act in a particular way politically was a step too far for some, prompting a special type of outrage.

But…this has been happening for centuries

What I found particularly interesting was that many of the “mainstream” media outlets, politicians and pundits expressing outrage have themselves—to some degree or another—been engaged in almost the exact same behaviour. In fact, the creation of an “artificial reality” to “influence people’s decisions” has been a staple of western history, if not a feature of power in general as some might argue. The dehumanisation and enslavement of Africans and the colonisation of much of the world required the construction of “race” and “Whiteness”, for example. The Nazi holocaust likewise required people to buy into certain discourses and myths about Jews. Indeed any type of zulm (injustice, wrong, oppression) requires you to put on a lens which augments whatever reality you see. Except it is on your thinking and idea of “knowledge” and “reality”, not just your sight, and in extreme examples leads one to a complete blindness from certain truths.

“So have they not travelled through the earth and have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts.”[4]

Allāh has warned us about the propensity of forces within this world to deceive, and our tendency to be deceived if we are not careful and reflective enough to challenge them.

“So let not the worldly life delude you and be not deceived about Allāh by the Deceiver.”[5]

One of the most successful deceptions of the Deceiver (shaytān) is to frame zulm within an artificial reality, to make evil look fair. One of the strangest features of the trial of Adolf Eichmann—responsible for killing millions in the holocaust—was that he was not what some people would have imagined such a villain to be. What they found instead was a “civil servant” who claimed he was “just doing his job”, leading the political theorist Hannah Arendt to coin the unforgettable term “the banality of evil”.[6] The verb زيّن appears approximately 14 times in the Qur’ān with the meaning to decorate, make fair-seeming, beautify or justify actions of wrongdoers. If one looks at any zulm in history one almost certainly finds this trait.

European and American history are sadly replete with examples. Industrialised and incentivised extermination of native peoples in three continents were often facilitated by depicting them as some kind of obstacle to the prosperity of legally-defined human beings. Lynching of black men and boys—enjoyed as a spectacle as “normal” as going to a football match—by White America was framed as “rescuing” white women from the hyper-masculinated and uncontrollable black man who was prone to rape (despite the historically preponderant inter-racial rape in the period said to be committed by White men against black women[7]). This is not to mention the myths produced by centuries of Orientalism that were used to frame barbaric behaviour during colonisation and imperialism all the way up to the “War on Terror”. Many of the staple practices throughout western history required people to buy into an “artificial reality” created around them.

Anti-Islamic narratives depend on “artificial reality” to persist

In fact, the existence of Islamophobia—both the structural racism today and the ideological hatred of yesterday—depends on a sustained effort to reimagine reality concerning Muslims. Three of the most prominent narratives (increasingly weaponised into dog whistles) are good examples of this:

I Our so-called “problem” of “extremism” and “terrorism”, for example, requires an ignoring of the statistical significance of the numbers of “terrorists” who happen to be Muslim. Only three out of 104 “terrorism incidents” in the UK in the last complete year (2016) in the Global Terrorism Database were by Muslims, including those that were foiled.[8] To add insult to injury, that is equal to the number of attacks by “anti-Muslim extremists”. Furthermore whenever a Muslim does engage in violence, it is often explained by his Muslim-ness to some degree or another (ideology or reference to post-facto religious justification), rather than the empirically discernible causes of the action as is afforded to “normal” violence.

II Likewise, the narrative of Muslims or Asians in the UK being “disproportionately represented” when it comes to “on-street grooming gangs targeting white girls” requires one to simply ignore the inclusion parameters in the statistics: modus operandi (on-street, local areas, in groups of more than two) and victim type (female, 11-16 years old). Without such inclusion parameters the “disproportionate representation” largely disappears, and the real, widespread issue of child sexual exploitation is revealed.[9]

III Or take the recent narratives concerning “integration”, which require carefully cherry-picked anecdotes and an ignorance of empirical data (like the infamous Casey review) to ossify old and new stereotypes about Muslims not “integrating” or being “British” enough.[10] Only this week Peter Oborne wrote about ground-breaking Ipsos Mori research on Muslims in Britain—which almost all newspapers completely ignored—stating boldly that “most beliefs about Muslims in Britain are simply false.”[11] The research revealed statistics like Muslims in Britain feeling more British than non-Muslims. He also adds that the Islamic beliefs that government ministers today cite as “extremism” and hostility to “British values” are “attitudes held by the majority of Britons until just a few decades ago.

These narratives about Muslims and Islām certainly do create an “artificial reality” in the minds of people—including Muslims who have absorbed these narratives and stereotypes like a sponge—certainly influencing their decisions and actions. However, what may be surprising for some people is that these very narratives have been present in western discourse regarding Islam for a thousand years. Veteran journalist-turned-sociologist of knowledge Jonathan Lyons in his seminal thesis “Islam Through Western Eyes” traced these very same narratives—using Michel Foucault’s “toolbox” of analysing discourse—all the way from the Crusades until the War on Terror.[12] Following the early period where Muslims were an undifferentiated entity, during the Crusades they were reinvented as being violent, sexually deviant, anti-women and “incompatible” with whatever constituted “the West” at any given moment (Christendom, Secularism, science, and so on); with features of this discourse remarkably intact right up until present day. Professor Joseph Massad goes further in tracing the very creation of “Europe” as a construct in contradistinction to “Islam” as the necessary, defining “Other”, and Liberalism likewise constructed to differentiate Europe from something called “Islam”.[13]

It is important to note that these are not discourses exclusive to the Daily Mail or the Henry Jackson Society. It is easy to debunk and dismiss people with an overt and unsophisticated anti-Islam agenda. The real challenge is in recognising these ideas, narratives, images and stereotypes within those who are otherwise “sensible” or “friendly” to Islam and Muslims—even Muslims themselves. Particularly because people do not like their internalised stereotypes being pointed out.

“Consciousness is controlled hallucination”

The human being may think that he is free from these influences and is “free” in his thinking, but it is easier than one might expect to fall prey to such an “artificial reality”, especially one with the momentum of a millennium behind it, which—by its very nature according to Foucault—resists being recognised as a discourse among other valid discourses, let alone challenged. One reason that the creation of an “artificial reality” is so powerful in human beings is what some call “the Tyranny of the Spectacle”.

Every moment there is a huge amount of “data” coming into our minds through our various senses, and it is impossible to absorb how the world around us is exactly as it is, recreating it at every moment in our minds, as though refreshing a web page. There has to be a considerable amount of stored cache—memories, assumptions, baselines, filling in the gaps—that we do not have to consciously compute in order to build up a picture, so we can focus on a smaller few pixels with a greater amount of concentration.

Therefore, our image of our surroundings—including people—is just as much projected from the inside out (perhaps more so), than it is from the outside in. This is why some psychologists and neuroscientists describe consciousness as “controlled hallucination”. That means that when you deal with another person, you are not dealing with them exactly as they are, but you are projecting an image onto them—and everything about them—which is what you are really “observing” and interacting with. When a non-Muslim is dealing with a Muslim they are thus dealing with the image that they are projecting from within—the spectacle of “the Muslim”.

That image that you have of others (or even yourself) is crafted by many things, including the prevailing stories and discourses about them, written by those with the power to shape the “artificial reality” around certain people. It has existed for a long time, so why are people complaining now? It seems that what we find is a battle between rival powers for who gets to forge the “artificial reality” for their own ends, rendering outrage over that particular point somewhat hypocritical in many instances.

Hypocrisy of outrage

James O’Brien, a radio host on popular tabloid radio station LBC, lamented the propaganda directed at potential Trump supporters, in the days following the revelations. “It’s amazing that someone who’s never left Texas in their whole life can be convinced that parts of East London are ‘no-go zones’ controlled by Sharia Law.” Whilst it is always a welcome change when someone recognises the power of Islamophobic propaganda, the statement of outrage itself betrayed an internalisation of Orientalist myths about “Sharia Law” as something “obviously” scary and absent from East London in reality; as opposed to the more accurate presumption of “Sharia Law” being a rich and dynamic field of law and ethics applying to everything, elements of which have made their way into the legal landscape (English Common Law and International Law for example) which East London has presumably enjoyed for a long time. Incidentally this is the same radio station that at one point employed the Alt-Fact Trinity of Katie Hopkins, Nigel Farage and Maajid Nawas—who routinely use any opportunity to ossify and propagate ancient Orientalist stereotypes used to further imperialist policies abroad and draconian policies at home against “extremists” (which in their artificial reality is what unapologetic Muslims are called).

A somewhat cynical interpretation of the outrage would be that social media today has merely decentralised the knowledge and reality-production that was once the preserve of billionaires. This is the explanation normally given to describe why the right-wing tabloids—who religiously defend themselves from regulation and Leveson proposals for things like making it easier for people to challenge them for libel—lead the charge against social media companies “not doing their bit” to stamp out whatever unsavoury views or behaviour they are used to share. Due to social media newspaper circulation is waning year upon year, and with it the traditional capacity for shaping people’s idea of “reality”, what is going on in the world around them, and what they should be thinking (read: angry) about. Those that are surviving are doing so by bolstering their online presence—which tragically requires them to yield to the very social media platforms that caused their downfall.

It does not require much imagination to feel the contempt and bitterness in those who have spent years if not decades (or generations) working arduously their way up the ranks of the previous hierarchy, penetrating organs of state power, academic circles, think tanks and media empires, only to be overcome by the new t-shirt-clad, trainer-wearing Silicon Valley plutocrats selling a similar level of influence to anyone with a Facebook Ads account. When their advanced algorithms were used in making shareholders millions in sales from targeted advertising, or used to maintain neoliberal political orthodoxy (like in Obama’s election campaign), or their dystopia-shaming surveillance infrastructure was on loan to state or military bidders, they were a bearable annoyance. However, when they help those outside of the political mainstream get into power, let alone those who desecrate the sacred subtlety and sophistication with which racist and Islamophobic narratives must be shrouded, it seems enough is enough, and outrage is due.

The bright side

I obviously have little sympathy for Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and any other Alt-Right clowns trying to grab the steering wheel for shaping people’s “artificial reality”. Neither am I defending the social media empires whose artificial intelligence algorithms have taken us into a chaos beyond repair.[14] People in the western world (and thanks to colonial modernity, almost everyone else) are coming to terms with the fact that we have been lied to for a long time about certain things, and the underlying myths about human nature and history that western Liberalism was founded upon are slowly unravelling. It is thus a volatile time, leading to a range of reactions characterised by distinctly western notions of “truth”. It is high time that Muslims reassert their own knowledge structures, and share the coherence (between humans, nature and truth) that gave their societies stability amidst diversity for possibly longer than any other people.

Allāh has warned us of the fragility and corruptibility of the heart, which in the language of the Qur’ān is the faculty charged with thinking, reflecting, knowing, recognising, and believing—similar to the “mind” in English. Not only has the Islamic tradition insisted on an objective, discernible quality of “truth” and “knowledge”, but Allāh has placed a particular duty on us to follow the truth wherever we find it, and hold fast to it, at the same time as being careful not to fall into the many falsehoods. Simple ignorance (الجهل البسيط) where you know that you simply do not know something, is far more empowering a position to be in than compounded ignorance (الجهل المركب) where you are unaware of your own ignorance (and instead may think you know something). It is thus a stepping stone to learning the truth about something, and I believe that compassionately awakening people to the fact that almost all of their opposition to Islām and Muslims is based on an “artificial reality”, is an important condition for being open to Daʿwah, or at least neutralising the harmful effects of Islamophobia and racism.

As some have argued, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is an opportunity to raise awareness and take back control of our data.[15] But it is also an opportunity to reach out to those who have been bombarded by Islamophobic propaganda for centuries. The ability to see truth as truth and falsehood as false is a gift bestowed by Allāh—whose name is al-Haqq (The Truth)—upon those who are humble and protect the precious vessel—the heart—that Allāh has given to us as a trust. That vessel has in every era been targeted by propaganda and specious arguments (shubuhāt), and diseases and desires (shahawāt). As goes the duʿā that is attributed to the early Muslims:

اللهم أرنا الحق حقاً وارزقنا إتباعه ، وأرنا الباطل باطلاً وارزقنا اجتنابه

O Allāh! Show us truth as truth, and grant us the following of it. Show us falsehood as false, and grant us the avoidance of it.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/cambridge-analytica-files

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

[3] http://www.wired.co.uk/article/delete-facebook-movement-brian-acton-leave-aleksandr-kogan

[4] Al-Qur’ān 22:46

[5] Al-Qur’ān 31:33

[6] Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Hannah Arendt, 1963. Viking Press.

[7] 13th, 2016 documentary by Ava DuVernay

[8] http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

[9] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/grooming-and-the-exploiting-of-exploitation/

[10] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/popular-lies-about-muslim-integration/

[11] http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/ipsos-mori-shows-most-beliefs-about-muslims-britain-are-simply-false-173786751

[12] Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. Jonathan Lyons, 2012. Columbia University Press.

[13] Islam in Liberalism. Joseph A. Massad, 2015. University of Chicago Press.

[14] https://www.ted.com/talks/zeynep_tufekci_we_re_building_a_dystopia_just_to_make_people_click_on_ads

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/23/dont-waste-the-cambridge-analytica-scandal-its-a-chance-to-take-control-of-our-data

About Dr Salman Butt

Salman studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London followed by a PhD in Chemical Biology, carrying out research into photosynthesis. During his years at university he became involved in Islamic society da'wah and activism, and general Muslim community projects. He is the Chief Editor and a regular contributor at Islam21c, and also has a blog on the Huffington Post.

One comment

  1. Sithy Hussain

    It is also important to talk of manipulation within Muslim communities. The Shi’a-Sunni divide, Isis ideology, the Saudi Wahab doctrine are manipulations contributing to the fall of the Ummah. These too have their roots centuries ago but it scratches at a fundamental premise that needs to be maintained by all Muslims and that is TRUTH. And if Muslims allow the distortion of the Truth within their Ummah there’s no point blaming others for their demise.

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