Cambridge Analytica harvested information from the social media giant under the guise of ’’academic research,” but then illegally misused it to custom-tailor political ads in a way that might have altered the outcome of the Brexit referendum and 2016 US Presidential election.
The whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie, who was also a co-founder of Cambridge Analytic, detailed how the company used Facebook information to profile people’s political and personal views, which it used to craft targeted ads designed to sway them to vote a certain way. This scheme eventually ensnared as many as 50 million individuals because the several hundred thousand Facebook participants who agreed to have their data collected for ’’academic research” were unaware that all their ’’friends” would be unwittingly co-opted, too. Hence the universe grew exponentially.
To many, this was an inevitable outcome and it was just a matter of time, as Facebook is in the business of surveiling users and then monetizing the data it procures to apparently any entity who has the means to pay. It’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, had boasted that the company’s mission was about ’’bringing the world closer together” as it collected massive amounts of data from users' and their friends to sell, so that advertisers could better hone their appealing messages to them
The backstory goes back to 2014 when Cambridge Analytica hired a Soviet-born American researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to profile Facebook users' using of a personality survey (while not disclosing how it would be used, or that it would include friends info). Facebook contends that Kogan was disingenuous about the collected information being used only for research purposes, that it was unaware that the information would be forwarded to Cambridge Analytica, let alone that it was being harvested for anything like political purposes. But it was.
The company allegedly used the data it gleaned to target voters who could most likely be swayed by targeted political ads - crucial swing voters. To make matters worse, Cambridge Analytica was funded by a major Trump Donor in 2016, Robert Mercer, and Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon served on the firm’s board. In case you’re wondering about the legality of using data this way, it should be noted that this is not new.
President Obama’s campaign in 2012 relied heavily on this method (editor's note: this charge is strongly contested). It is probable that as far as political blowback goes, this fiasco will simply fall under the heading of ’’dirty tricks” - albeit on steroids.
No, the problem is not one of legality or political impropriety, especially in today’s bare-knuckles politics. The problem lies at Facebook’s feet. Worse than suffering penalties from the UK’s data protection laws, it is currently being punished in global stock markets, where it has suffered staggering losses. Zuckerberg alone is said to have lost about $5 billion net worth in recent days, and the ’’bleeding” has no end in sight. Why?
It is because this is no mere data breach for which the company can issue mea culpa’s and then recover its reputation, prestige, customers, and, ultimately, its share price. What happened occurred because, as essentially an advertising platform, Facebook is ripe for the abuse it has suffered. It derives its revenue because it is so good at extracting information from you. Thus, it aids and abets companies like Cambridge Analytica. After it garners the information it goes to places it knows not where.
Facebook is not the only party at fault in the information gathering/selling for advertisement game. It is simply the largest by far and, thus far, it has done a poor job of safeguarding users' data. Its executives may be soon called to account in both Washington and Westminster, where it will have the difficult task of telling lawmakers how it can self-regulate in such a way that deters legislators from imposing regulation themselves. In any event, this situation continues to percolate, so, stay tuned.
Image credit: By Mihai Surdu/Shutterstock.