Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s misuse of your data sounds sinister, but if the Senate’s questioning of Zuckerberg earlier this week taught us anything, it’s that our elected officials are not sufficiently educated on the subject to understand Facebook’s user experience, let alone its ability to influence elections. The hearing hit a low point when Senator Roy Blunt proudly proclaimed to Zuckerberg he was the first Senator to put his ‘Facebook address’ on his business card. It seemed at times the viewers watching the livestream on social media were more better informed than the Senate inquisitors, who collectively have an average age of 61.
To understand how potentially damaging Cambridge Analytica (CA) could be to British and American democracy, it’s important to understand where they started. CA is an offshoot of a larger company called the SCL group, which markets itself as a ‘psychological warfare’ firm. SCL has aided political organisations around the world through shady but not particularly advanced means. In Indonesia, for example, they placed an article in a paper, forging government documents in order to support President Abdurrahman Wahid. CA was formed in 2013, the project of then-Breitbart News boss Steve Bannon, and Republican donor Robert Mercer. At the time, the idea seemed laughable: to target ads at voters based off a ‘Big Five’ personality test. CA’s plan to access that information was less funny.
CA’s strategy was to fund academic Aleksandr Kogan. The Russian had created a Facebook personality app that was used by 270,000 people and ‘scraped’ the data from those people. Data wasn’t just collected from these users, who one might argue had consented to the practise. The information of those people’s friends was scraped too. Facebook now estimates over 87 million users were compromised, including a million Brits. Facebook had allowed Kogan to collect this data, and had taken his word he would use it for purely academic purposes: an undoubtable error in judgement. This resulted in one of the largest systemic data breaches in history.
This information was used to target ads during the US 2016 election, and may have helped the Leave campaign in the UK. Facebook has recently suspended Canadian firm AggregateIQ from its platform following revelations in the Observer that it might possibly have been tied to CA. Vote Leave dropped 40% of their budget on AggregateIQ, and if connections are proved, they could face criticism from hiring a sinister publicity manipulation service during a referendum already fraught with misinformation.
There is a final, better question: what sort of impact was CA able to have with this information? Targeted ads are, of course, useful. A notable example involved CA to placing misleading ads aimed at African-Americans including Hillary’s ‘predators’ speech. The aim was not to incentivise these groups to vote Trump, merely to discourage them voting at all: a lower turnout would benefit the Republican campaign, and considering Trump won many US states by tiny margins, the impact false or nefarious advertising campaigns can have cannot be over-emphasized. Videos online do not currently have to display their funding source in the US, which makes targeted this much easier. That said, if CA could really work the political wonders, Ted Cruz, the first Presidential candidate they supported, would be US President.
Zuckerberg must now ensure any groups with similar access to CA are culled from his site, and must restore public trust in his service. Facebook began by violating the privacy of women attending university. It must prove it has learnt from those past mistakes. It has to comply with any legislation the Senators throw out. It must also implement clear boundaries and transparency protocols to ensure users at least have to consent to their data being shared in unfortunate ways. It must, finally, force campaigns to earmark their advertisements online. Legislation moves slowly, but tech companies move fast: Facebook’s stable stock value proved this week that Zuckerberg can weather this storm, but his company has a lot of work to do.