Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, has been under fire recently for a scandal involving data immorally obtained from its servers by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. In 2014, Cambridge Analytica began collecting identifiable personal information from an alleged 87 million users, 70 million of which are Americans (according to Facebook). According to the BBC, though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a recent testimony, before the U.S. Congress, that the data collected included only mundane things such as “public profile, page likes, birthday and current city,” the scandal, exposed by former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, has been enough to incite a nationwide conversation about privacy on the internet and consumers’ rights.
The Guardian has reported that Cambridge Analytica collected data in a dishonest method. The firm sent out a survey for allegedly “academic purposes” only, to which several hundreds of thousands of Facebook users consented. However, the survey collected information not only from the consenting users, but also from others in their social network. But, what is even more controversial is that this data was then sold to political groups, including the 2015 presidential campaign of Ted Cruz and politicians involved in the Brexit vote of 2016. Also, according to The New York Times, the data was detailed enough to develop psychographical profiles of its subjects, which could yield useful information to politicians on how to deliver their message to voters in different constituencies.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been very apologetic, calling it an “issue,” a “mistake” and a “breach of trust”; Cambridge Analytica have been less so. They maintain that the collected data amounts to that of only 30 million users, not 87.
It is also believed, by many on the left, that Cambridge Analytica played a crucial role in the election of President Donald Trump. Secret footage filmed by BBC’s Channel 4 News revealed bosses of the firm bragging about their role in his presidential campaign. Furthermore, a link has been drawn between Cambridge Analytica and the alleged efforts of the Kremlin in Trump’s campaign. Hillary Clinton has said, in Business Insider, “So you’ve got Cambridge Analytica, you’ve got the Republican National Committee — which, of course, had always done data collection and analysis — and you’ve got the Russians. And the real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania; that is really the nub of the question. So if they were getting advice from, let’s say, Cambridge Analytica or someone else about ‘OK, here are the 12 voters in this town in Wisconsin — that’s whose Facebook pages you need to be on to send these messages,’ that indeed would be very disturbing.”
Clinton’s remarks about the dishonesty and creepiness of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s actions represent those of many Americans on either side of the political spectrum. According to CBS News, speaking on a recent poll about the scandal, “Eight in ten Americans who took the poll said they weren’t surprised to discover outside companies got hold of their data, and 63 percent believe their Facebook data is currently unsafe.”
According to The New York Times, in response to allegations of dishonesty, poor regulation, and monopoly, Zuckerberg testified before the US Congress on April 10 and 11. Though he stated that Russia and Cambridge Analytica are corporations that “seek to harm us and hack our democracy,” and, “Do we have a responsibility for the content people share on Facebook? I think the answer to that question is yes,” Zuckerberg offered evidence of no actual solutions for the crisis being implemented, and was hesitant to answer any significant proposals of reform with a yes or no answer. This is especially important seeing as the Cambridge Analytica data scandal is not the first political scandal Facebook has been involved in in recent years; there were also the “fake news” and hate speech controversies. Zuckerberg’s testimony was perhaps more entertaining than informative, with internet commentators and meme creators teasing “Zucc” for his use of a booster seat and his alleged “reptilian” appearance mannerisms, especially on the social media network Reddit.
Vox reports that a civil rights movement is building against Facebook and it is uncertain how much the company is willing to give. Many protesters claim that Facebook’s virtual monopoly on social media (owning the three largest networks in the company, with Instagram and Facebook Messenger) justifies government intervention. Many individual Americans have sued Facebook in their county for infringements relating to the scandal. But, something even bigger is on the horizon: on Thursday, as reported by The Guardian, a joint US/UK class-action lawsuit was filed against Facebook, Cambridge Analytics and two other companies for using individuals’ private information for “political propaganda campaigns.” Even after the repealing of net neutrality laws last December, the future of consumer rights online may not be so bleak.