Facebook shaken by data harvesting scandal
Facebook faced withering criticism and the likelihood of multiple government investigations this week amid revelations that a political data firm hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign used the social network to harvest the personal information of more than 50 million users without their permission. In 2014, U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica paid University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan to collect data on Facebook users with a personality quiz app. Some 270,000 people took the quiz; by mining the Facebook profiles of their friends, Kogan built a database of 50 million users. Facebook told Kogan that the data could be used only for academic purposes, but Cambridge Analytica—co-founded by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and partly owned by conservative donor Robert Mercer—tapped it to build “psychographic” profiles of voters, who could then be targeted with highly tailored messages. Facebook knew Cambridge had violated its terms of service by late 2015 but suspended the firm from its platform only this week, shortly before exposés were published in The New York Times and Britain’s The Observer.
Facebook’s stock plunged 10 percent following the revelations, losing $60 billion in value. Company founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted Facebook had “made mistakes,” and pledged to improve data safeguards. Cambridge Analytica suspended CEO Alexander Nix this week after a British news program captured him on video telling an undercover reporter that the firm could destroy political targets using sex workers, while also bragging about the company’s role in electing Trump.
What the editorials said
“We don’t know for certain if this data swayed voters in any elections,” said the Chicago Tribune. But what we do know is damning enough: that millions of Facebook users had highly personal data—about their families, interests, friends—exploited without their consent for political gain. Facebook cannot be trusted “to police itself,” said The New York Times. The Federal Trade Commission is now investigating whether the company violated a 2011 consent decree it was operating under for previous, unrelated privacy violations. “In the longer term, Congress clearly needs to strengthen privacy laws.”
It’s no secret that companies like Facebook thrive by sucking up lucrative personal data, said The Wall Street Journal. But Facebook’s stock is now taking a pounding because the firm finally looks vulnerable to profit-crimping regulations. Silicon Valley, a liberal bastion, enjoyed a “halo effect” under the Obama administration. But now that Democrats have discovered tech can be used for nefarious purposes—“such as helping Trump”—they’re suddenly demanding investigations of Facebook’s data practices.
What the columnists said
The Trump campaign “had a crew of high-tech dirty tricksters on its payroll,” said Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times. Besides amassing personal data under false pretenses, Cambridge Analytica also reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in hopes of acquiring Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. Unsurprisingly, special counsel Robert Mueller is now probing the company. There might be nothing there. But, “at a minimum, we’ve learned that the Trump campaign’s vaunted social media program was built on deception.”
Spare me the “moral panic,” said Michael Brendan Dougherty in NationalReview.com. Political commentators “gushed” about similar data harvesting by the Obama campaign in 2012. Instead of a quiz, supporters were asked to sign into the campaign website using Facebook. “Where were these worries four years ago?” This entire story is overblown, said David Harsanyi in TheFederalist.com. The Trump campaign stopped using Cambridge Analytica’s data in late September 2016, well before the election, because it wasn’t very accurate. Even if voters were “targeted,” who cares? That’s how political advertising works.
“What Cambridge Analytica did was, in many ways, what Facebook was optimized for,” said Will Oremus in Slate.com. But that’s exactly why a #deleteFacebook campaign is trending on Twitter. People are tired of the “Faustian” bargain that requires them to gift personal data to tech giants in return for access to vital online services. And they’re fed up with Facebook’s failure to rein in bad actors—just look at how the Russians spread disinformation on the platform in the 2016 election. Facebook has missed its chance to self-regulate. Now it’s up to the public and legislators “to rework the terms of that agreement by which people sign away their personal data.” ■