Espionage, mind control, rigged elections, shadowy global organisations, billionaire elites, democracy hijacked, big data… Unless you have been living under a rock for the last fortnight you will be well aware of the latest, and most high profile, airing of Facebook’s dirty laundry.
Social Decay by Andrei Lacatusu (10)
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie lifted the curtain on a social media based ‘psychological warfare tool’ that he developed on behalf of Steve Bannon, the former chief of right-leaning news outlet, Breitbart News. He alleges that the business he represented – Cambridge Analytica, the villains of this piece – used data harvested from over 50 million Facebook profiles to build detailed psychological profiles for use in advertising campaigns designed to swing undecided voters (1).
CA, armed with the strapline ‘data-driven behavioural change’, have perpetuated the image that they are the silent players in delivering election results, both at home and overseas (Trump/Kenya). An expose, lovingly written by Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian and published in May 2017, placed them at the centre of the Brexit campaign and flew tragically under the radar (2). A scathing undercover report produced by Channel 4 documented a less than ethical CA sales pitch, as they cornered the chiefs of the business discussing bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers (3).
It’s the latter of these that highlights the truth about CA. Once we strip away the mystique, myth and media sensationalism, we can see that they are, first and foremost, an agency. Thus we can conclude that the perpetuation of the image that they present (data mining demagogues with backdoor keys to Facebook databases and PhD’s in mind control) is good for business. Unfortunately for CA, in this case, they appear to have been the architects of their own demise.
On the other side of this are Facebook, and in particular Mark Zuckerberg, whos woeful ineptitude in handling this media storm (4) has turned it into a cataclysmic event that has knocked $90 billion off the companies value (at the time of writing) (5).
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Justin Sullivan / Getty (8)
The fact is, he just didn’t feel like it was a big deal, and in truth neither does anybody who understands how Facebook works. The method used to harvest the data – using the ‘Sign in with Facebook’ feature of many apps to gather information about what users and their friends like – was completely blocked in 2014.
What of the information they harvested? The quality of the data is highly suspect – Are ‘likes’ really an indicator of personality type? And if so, does a snapshot of someones likes from 2012 have as much relevance in 2018? The jury is out (6, 7).
To summarise the whole messy affair, we can break the story down into the following points:
- Agency buys data from questionable source (the most troubling aspect of this case).
- Said data is used to create personality profiles (the ‘secret sauce’ of Cambridge Analytica).
- The personality profiles are used to build targeting (using options available to all advertisers) for Facebook campaigns.
There’s nothing new here, in fact there is evidence to suggest that what Cambridge Analytica did on a practical level on Facebook was both ineffectual and counter-intuitive (6, 7).
What CA are truly guilty of, in the eyes of the media, is having highly questionable and sensitive clients. Would the level of debate and ill feeling have been this strong had CA represented Hillary Clinton or Remain? Perhaps not. The downfall of CA can also be seen as their biggest success – They sold themselves to potential clients as an evil benevolent manipulator of the masses and were surprised when they were represented as such in the media.
Donald_Trump credit Notions Capital (Flickr Creative Commmons).jpg (9)
Away from politics and the car crash that has littered the news, the silver lining is that users are becoming more aware of how their data is collected and used by businesses. Regulatory frameworks, from GDPR to eprivacy, are springing up to protect consumer rights in this area. We can only hope that a level of data maturity becomes ingrained into public consciousness, however it may take several more GA level scandals and data breaches for the message to hit home.
The reason for this is apathy – users are typically a change averse bunch. Facebook is heavily entrenched in daily life, and it would take a scandal so huge it would force the platforms closure or a massive change in the design to steer users away from it (remember the ‘Facebook is going to start charging for use in 30 days unless you pass this on’ chain-spam that used to litter the platform? Yes, I’m talking that level of change).
To conclude, there will be no ‘Facebook Apocalypse’, not today. The user base will, for better or worse, forget about Cambridge Analytica. Regulatory frameworks will tighten, but the platform will adapt. The best outcome we as society can hope for us that users finally get to grips with the idea that they are sharing enormous amounts of personal data with businesses online, many of whom do not have their best interests at heart. And I will remain calm, and continue to love Facebook.
1 – The Cambridge Analytica files: the story so far – Guardian News (Mar’18) – https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/26/the-cambridge-analytica-files-the-story-so-far
2 – The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked – Guardian News (May’17) – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy
3 – Cambridge Analytica Uncovered: Secret filming reveals election tricks – Channel 4 News (Mar’18) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpbeOCKZFfQ
4 – That long-awaited Mark Zuckerberg response – The Register (Mar’18) – https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/03/21/zuckerberg_good_news_facebook_data_abuse_problems_mostly_solved/
5 – Confirmation of a US government probe pushes Facebook’s market loss to $90 billion – Quartz (Mar’18) – https://qz.com/1237634/cambridge-analytica-scandal-confirmation-of-ftc-probe-pushes-facebooks-10-day-market-loss-to-90-billion/
6 – The Cambridge Analytica Data Apocalypse was Predicted in 2007 (In Depth) – Wired (Mar’18) – https://www.wired.com/story/the-cambridge-analytica-data-apocalypse-was-predicted-in-2007/
7 – What Facebook Data Did They Get and What Did They Do? – Shelly Palmer (Mar’18) – https://www.shellypalmer.com/2018/03/facebook-data-get/