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Social Media Jumps Into The Looking Glass, Crashes

The internet upended the media world as the new century arrived. Social media came into full view a decade ago. Nothing has been the same. People around the world liked, literally, these platforms, which promised to connect everybody to everybody else. The advertising people liked this very, very much. The data collected by cookies, bots and algorithms looked like a gift from the gods. It was not.

peek-a-booLast Friday Facebook “suspended” accounts of UK-based data cruncher Cambridge Analytica, its parent Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), a former employee and a university psychology professor for violating platform policies, said a post attributed to vice president and deputy general council Paul Grewal. He explained using a public blog post for the statement due to “the public prominence of this organization (Cambridge Analytica),” quoted by TechCrunch (March 17).


That “public prominence” became quite obvious over the weekend as both the UK Observer and the New York Times (March 17) published details provided by that aforementioned former employee who decided to blow the whistle. It seems a crafty little app designed by a Cambridge University professor hoovered up data points on 50 million Facebook users using one of those seemingly innocuous “psychological profile” tests which were combined with geo-location and limited (public) information about users friends. Those data points could also be linked to voter registrations. Cambridge University and Cambridge Analytica are not in any way associated, aside from psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan, who just happens also to be an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, Russian Federation.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” said Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower, quoted by The Observer (March 17), “and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on.”

“Rules don’t matter for (the leaders of Cambridge Analytica),” said Mr. Wylie, quoted by the New York Times (March 17). “They want to fight a culture war in America. Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.” Cambridge Analytica is principally owned by hedge fund billionaire and right-wing political supporter Robert Mercer.

Cambridge Analytica has long touted its ability to algorithmically profile social media users to facilitate message placement. Those tools were used by the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign and the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. Company president Alexander Nix said the data collected through the Kogan app had been destroyed. The New York Times report said that data can still be found online.

Both news outlets has sought comments from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica before publication. External lawyers for Facebook issued a thinly-veiled threat to The Observer for “false and defamatory” allegations. Last year Cambridge Analytica threatened Guardian Media Group, publisher of The Observer and The Guardian, with legal action citing defamation.

Last week the office of US special council Robert Mueller requested “internal documents” from Cambridge Analytica, reported the Wall Street Journal (March 16), in the investigation of foreign influence in recent US political campaigns. Over the weekend UK House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee chairperson Damian Collins said he’d be asking Mr. Nix to explain statements he made to last month to the committee denying that Cambridge Analytica had or used private data from Facebook. Mr. Nix had “deliberately misled” the committee, said Mr. Collins, quoted by Sky News (March 18).

Cambridge Analytica is certainly not alone in the ever-expanding realm of social media data mining. And it is probably not alone surreptitiously serving political campaigns or “fighting culture wars” somewhere. This is not the same as persuading Pepsi drinkers to buy Coca-Cola.

As the global market leader, Facebook’s practices, policies and mistakes define social media. Its business model, deftly employed, is more than simply selling ads. It sells a service to identify and micro-target individuals who, unless they read the terms of service fine-print, have no idea whose cross-hairs they are in. This may or may not cross legal lines, depending of jurisdiction. In more cheerful days Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that “privacy is no longer a social norm,” quoted by Mashable (January 10, 2010). So last century.

Mr. Zuckerberg will be invited to share with the UK House of Commons select committee how, despite denials, all that private data fell into the hands of Cambridge Analytica. “It is now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent,” said Mr. Collins, quoted by the Guardian (March 18), “and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns. Facebook knew about this, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with it.”

Citing the quite humbling Observer and New York Times investigations, Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey opened a civil investigation, reported the Boston Globe (March 18). “Massachusetts residents deserve answers immediately.” Her office said Facebook had been informed.

“The lid is being opened on the black box of Facebook’s data practices, and the picture is not pretty,” said University of Maryland (US) law professor Frank Pasquale, quoted by Reuters (March 18). “It amazes me that they are trying to make this about nomenclature. I guess that’s all they have left.”

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