Facebook is grappling with the fallout from its alleged role in permitting the London-based data firm Cambridge Analytica to gain access to data from profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users for political purposes. The Facebook data reportedly was mined for data by an app called "thisisyourdigitallife," presumably for an academic research project. The app was created by Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic at Cambridge University, and his company Global Science Research. The data was then transferred by the researcher to Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump presidential campaign and was backed by Steve Bannon and the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica claims that the Facebook data it gathered from the app was not used for the 2016 Trump presidential election campaign. Facebook claims that its user profile data was provided to Cambridge Analytica without its knowledge. Facebook also claims that it shut the app down in 2015.
There are reports the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating whether Facebook violated terms of a 2011 consent decree in connection with the transfer of user data to Cambridge Analytica. A spokesperson for the FTC would neither confirm nor deny whether it was launching such an investigation.
Members of Congress and United Kingdom lawmakers have called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain Facebook's actions and his company's connections with Cambridge Analytica. The hit to Facebook’s reputation and the potential for increased government regulation on both sides of the Atlantic are taking its toll. Facebook’s stock value has taken a nosedive as a result.
On the political front, President Trump’s enemies are busy exploiting the connection between Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign, and by implication the purported misuse of Facebook sourced data for improper partisan purposes. As the Russian-Trump campaign collusion narrative begins to fade due to lack of evidence, the Trump-hating media has latched on to a new Deus ex Machina behind Donald Trump’s improbable victory in a continuing effort to delegitimize his presidency.
The New York Times, for example, ran an article last Saturday under the headline “How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions,” in which it described what it characterized as “one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history” and “a potentially powerful new weapon” put to use by “wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics.” The Trump-hating media’s hysteria over the latest developments displays both their double standard and reckless disregard of the actual facts.
The so-called “powerful new weapon” is not new at all. In fact, as reported by Time Magazine in December 2012, Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign pioneered “a Facebook app that will transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future…That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them.”
The Obama re-election campaign was collecting current data through the app it had developed to mine information on Facebook. The Obama campaign mined Facebook data provided by Obama backers that included the identities of their “friends,” in all likelihood without their consent or knowledge. Many of the “friends” who were outed to the Obama campaign had chosen to guard their privacy by not even having a listed phone number. Nevertheless, the Obama-loving media hailed his re-election campaign’s use of cutting edge technology. In June 2013, for example, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine headlined “Data You Can Believe In - The Obama Campaign’s Digital Masterminds Cash In.”
By contrast, the Facebook data that the Trump bashers accuse, without hard evidence, the Trump campaign of exploiting during the 2016 presidential contest was already outdated. Facebook had cut off the “friends” functionality for app developers back in 2015.
Facebook, at the time of Obama’s re-election campaign, was said to be on Obama’s side, according to Carol Davidsen, director of data integration and media analytics for Obama for America. She admitted on Twitter a few days ago that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing. They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
When Obama re-election campaign data experts exploited current Facebook user data with Facebook’s tacit support, they were considered “digital masterminds.” When conservatives make use of Facebook data in a presidential election, the Trump-hating media cry foul. One columnist went so far as to write an article for the Philadelphia Daily News entitled “How your Facebook 'likes' Helped Trump Steal the 2016 Election.” This is the media double standard in action.
In any case, the Trump campaign did not need the outdated Facebook data Cambridge Analytica had gathered through the discontinued app created by Aleksandr Kogan, to the extent it had retained such data at all in violation of Facebook’s direction. Facebook was all too willing to make available to the Trump campaign for a price its own apps and targeted advertising to reach friends of people who might have "liked" a page considered favorable to Donald Trump.
The false accusations against the Trump campaign are a complete distraction from the more fundamental concern that Facebook user data can be marketed for political or commercial purposes without the user’s knowledge or consent. Social media and interactive Internet technology have opened up unprecedented opportunities for global communications and e-commerce. However, surveillance concerns are raised when social media platforms such as Facebook manipulate and market vast repositories of user data collected on their sites without the users even knowing about it, much less giving their consent. Sophisticated apps capable of tracking users from one website to another, profiling their searches and interactions, and marketing the results without the users’ knowledge or consent raise similar surveillance concerns. There is no privacy to speak of for users of the Internet. This is the real lesson of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook episode.