Last month, Netflix released The Great Hack, a fascinating documentary focusing on the scandal that resulted after the revelation that British company Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of an estimated 87 million Facebook users without their consent and used it to build psychographic profiles to target and influence those users with advertisements and social media content during political elections around the world (including the U.S.) — and made a lot of money doing it.
But the most disturbing moment comes near the end of the documentary, in footage from a Cambridge Analytica sales video that boasts how they influenced voter behavior in Trinidad and Tobago by using social media to create a fake empowerment movement aimed at marginalized youth along racial lines to suppress their turnout in an election.
In Wired, Emily Dreyfuss describes this stunning revelation as the moment in which she realized that Cambridge Analytica is only a “symptom of a disease plaguing society,” which is “all the systems that let people become manipulated by the digital psychological clues they leave through their lives.”
And that disease runs deep.
In Faithful Presence, David Fitch notes that our society organizes systems to use power efficiently, get things done at a price and make money. We become pieces in those systems and play our parts in power relationships.
“In this world, problems become projects. People become pieces to be managed within projects. And then people themselves become projects. Those who control the money control the power. By this process, we all get bonded into the system. The world, it seems, makes pawns of us all.”
Acknowledging the diseased systems we live in helps us understand how a wealthy and powerful company ended up viewing and using marginalized youth as pawns in an election. They are a product of their culture — albeit pretty extreme.
But so are we. And while we may not wield power or dehumanize people to the extent of Cambridge Analytica, we too easily treat people as pieces to be managed within projects, even with the best of intentions.
Many of us, says Fitch, are guilty of making the marginalized and poor into a project or program, where those who have money and resources spend a few hours distributing to those who don’t. While these well-intentioned ministries alleviate immediate suffering, they can also make the poor into objects and keep them at a distance.
“They work against the new socioeconomic order God is creating in his kingdom,” says Fitch — a kingdom marked by relationships in which “no one becomes an object to or a project of someone else.”
For the early church, says Fitch, kinship with the marginalized was part of everyday life — and, as a result, lives were changed. And not only the lives of the poor and marginalized.
“Those of us who have never suffered the brutalities of life must submit to the discipline of being with those who have,” Fitch says.
He encourages believers to learn how to be truly present with each other and the poor: “When we do this, a space is opened up that is beyond our own control. We who have never suffered see Jesus at work like we’ve never seen before. We encounter God in Christ in the flesh. . . . We see our own deficits, the ways we have never depended on God, the ways we have kept in control.”
Yes, a disease runs deep in our culture and in us, but God has the cure. As we practice kinship and presence, it pours out on the world.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.