The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Theo Turvill investigates the digital data scandal that has rocked politics.

Theo Turvill
30th April 2018
Mark Zuckerberg on stage at Facebook's F8 Conference. By Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Mark “the ZUCC bot 2000” Zuckerberg has been feeling the pressure of the Joint Commerce and Judiciary Committee. At a hearing entitled “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data”, he tried and failed to convince the world that he is, in-fact, a fellow human. But why is there a hearing at all?

The saga begins with University of Cambridge Professor, Aleksandr Kogan, developing an app called “This is Your Digital Life’ way back in 2013. It included a personality quiz and was installed by 300,000 Facebook users. Users of the app granted access to the data making up their user profile, the app could also crawl through their social network, feeding on the data of the user’s Facebook friends. The result was a data base of roughly 50 million captured personality profiles, of which Zuckerberg’s was one.

Under Facebook policy of the time this was allowed. However, Kogan then sold the data to the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), a move that broke Facebook policy. CA used the data to train algorithms to find patterns within the data set. With patterns established the algorithm was able to predict responses for other users, allowing CA the ability to predict then manipulate voter behaviour through the delivery of aggressive, highly targeted political advertisement campaigns.

The plot thickened when CA’s potential political connections to the Trump candidacy were revealed with Trumps former chief strategist; Steve Bannon, CA founder and former vice president. Bannon denies knowledge of the Facebook mining despite sitting on the board at the time. Christopher Wylie oversaw research at CA when acquiring the data from Facebook and has now blown the whistle on Bannon, claiming that the data was the “core of what CA became”. Wylie gave evidence that Bannon had at least some notion of the company’s activities in the Trump Campaign, making it hard to believe Bannon’s claimed ignorance.

It is unclear how CA acted on the data. Videos of secret meetings with senior employees at CA show them boasting of online ads with the tag line ‘Defeat Crooked Hilary’ being viewed over 30 million times. Make America Number One, an organisation independent from CA and funded by billionaire Trump supporter Robert Mercer, is the prime suspect for delivering CA’s agenda. If Make America Number One worked in coordination with the Trump campaign, the implications for them and CA are significant. Coordination between a candidate’s campaign and Super PAC’s are illegal according to US election law; if collusion is found there could be serious implications of the Trump Presidency.

[pullquote]The era of self-regulation seems to be coming to an end for social media sites[/pullquote]

Facebook’s negligence with user information and involvement in the CA scandal was a primary trigger for the hearing. This is not the first time Zuckerberg has had to put up his hands. After a decade of apologies centring on the issue of privacy violations, policy-makers are getting restless and pushing for the self-regulation of social media sites to be restricted. Zuckerberg seems open to change announcing before the committee the need for a “broader philosophical shift” at Facebook stating that “it’s not enough to build tools, we have to make sure they are used for good” in an attempt to control future interference of elections over social media by third parties such as CA. He feels some regulation is in order and shares a keenness to work with legislators with suggestions of policy proposals to “get it right”.

The era of self-regulation seems to be coming to an end for social media sites, but concerns of government involvement in the internet fit uncomfortably closely with visions of an Orwellian, dystopic future.

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