Facebook Meets *Facepalm* – The Cambridge Analytica Edition
In the summer of May 2012, an amusing blog post detailed the discovery of ‘The Springfield Gazette’, a proof of concept newspaper that was included in a patent filed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1845. According to Lincoln, the newspaper would include short submissions from the various townsfolk that would keep the community apprised on the day-to-day events and activities in each other’s lives. The story spread like wildfire: ‘Did you know Abraham Lincoln Filed a Patent for Facebook in 1845?’. The author of the story – a blogging consultant named Nate St. Pierre, spent five hours fabricating the tale, which included Photoshopping the alleged ‘Springfield Gazette’ into existence. “I wanted to illustrate one of the drawbacks to our “first and fastest” news aggregation and reporting mentality, especially online”, he wrote.
Meanwhile, as the internet was coming to grips with the reality of a world shaped by social media, data scientists in erstwhile President Obama’s re-election campaign, were building Facebook apps to mobilize and “get out the vote”, leveraging the features of Facebook’s social graph to build a comprehensive voter database. At the time, the fawning media marveled at the game-changing and revolutionary methods adopted by the campaign. The technology press was, however, less than amused at the potential of Facebook’s developer platform, often warning users and creating tutorials to protect against privacy violations from apps on the platform.
Earlier this year, however, following an investigation into alleged foreign interference in the Brexit referendum and US Presidential election, Facebook announced that it would be suspending the marketing firm Cambridge Analytica from its service, for the improper use of personal information gathered via the Facebook platform, in 2014. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica had been hired to consult with various campaign organizations that supported the ‘leave’ Brexit vote, and also consulted with the political campaigns of candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump during the US Presidential Election later that year. In response to the ban, mainstream news media corporations around the world erupted in a cacophony of outrage, aided by partisan political entities, still reeling from their respective unexpected and devastating losses. Following the Facebook debacle, it was reported that Twitter allegedly sold user data to Cambridge Analytica linked researchers.
Unlike the Obama campaign in 2012, Cambridge Analytica purchased user data from Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian psychologist who developed a personality test Facebook app, which had built psychographic profiles of the users who took the test, and linked them with the data related to their friends, made available by Facebook’s platform, for which the user gave their consent on the app’s permissions screen. In both cases, however, unwitting friends of participating users had their data shared with a third party without their explicit consent.
Both the UK and US governments summoned Mark Zuckerberg to testify before a panel of legislators, in a ‘better late than never’ move that brought much-needed regulatory attention to data privacy.
As of May 25, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations will be in force, which mandates several ruthless fines and penalties for technology companies who do not offer users the ability to delete the entirety of their data on their respective platforms, as well as offer a downloadable copy to users.
— Getty Images News (@GettyImagesNews) April 10, 2018
The media’s newfound interest in privacy issues surrounding Facebook’s developer platform came 4 whole years after the issues were fixed by Facebook themselves. While in place, many of the very same media corporations enjoyed access to user data through their own Facebook apps, or sign up buttons. This unprecedented volume of outrage also came suspiciously soon after Facebook announced a change to the news feed algorithm, which likely dealt a crippling blow to the Facebook pages of news corporations, significantly impacting their views and subsequent clicks and revenue. The other catalysts for the outrage – the outcomes of Brexit and the US Presidential election were also significant upsets for the western news media, as almost every prediction, punditry and poll published prior to the two events seemed to indicate an almost certain win for the losing side – indicating a much closer contest than what was being reported before official polling began.
The Cambridge Analytica incident also exposes a chilling double standard in the tone of coverage from partisan media outlets, when contrasted between both major US political parties, and both sides of the UK referendum, and their unethical uses of social media. Missing from most mainstream news outlets has also been the possible role of Facebook itself, as a partisan voice in a political landscape. In a disturbing set of revelations that followed the breaking of the Cambridge Analytica story, a data scientist from the Obama 2012 campaign remarked that Facebook’s own staff were surprised at their team’s ability to “suck out the whole social graph” and allegedly allowed the campaign to do things that they would not have allowed others to do because they were “on their side.” Leaked emails from the Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager revealed Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg offered help to the campaign (most likely in the form of public appearances and endorsements), and was later revealed to be a potential top pick for Secretary of the Treasury, had the candidate won.
As a popular source of news and information on the Internet, Facebook’s ability to selectively drive nuggets of information that favor a particular point of view, or paint a particular candidate in a positive or negative light, can have significant repercussions on a democratic system.
In the aftermath of this coverage, the hashtag #DeleteFacebook rose to popularity, with many prominent tech figures such as Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk advocating that users delete their accounts. Given that the privacy violations in question were 4 years old, and the means by which users had their *public* data by third parties without consent were fixed 4 years ago, the apparent blowback against the platform seemed entirely misguided and misinformed. If these stories sparked a broader discussion on the nature of publishing personal information to the internet on a centralized platform like Facebook, the net effect was apparently minimal, as Facebook continued to see soaring revenues, beating expectations, and user interaction levels continued as per the norm, according to Mark Zuckerberg.
In India, Cambridge Analytica made headlines after Facebook revealed that as many as 5.6 lakh users from India may have had their data shared with the company without their consent. As political party leaders traded jabs, each blaming the other for engaging the firm for political consultancy, citizens across the country likely had their mobile phones buzz and beep with the routine daily onslaught of SMS advertisements from companies they had never heard of, which mysteriously had their phone numbers on record. Should India ever see strong data privacy laws on its books that seek to protect the identities and personal information of its citizens, it’s likely that government agencies would be among the chief culprits, given the abysmal track record thus far on the safety of the Aadhaar database.
Visuals for this piece are courtesy of Samarth Bhagwat