Facebook was recently hit by a huge scandal. According to media reports, data on the “likes” of 50 million Facebook users was harvested by the firm Cambridge Analytica and used for targeted political advertising. Facebook’s own behavior of added fuel to the fire of public outrage.
As a result, the company’s capitalization shed tens of billions of dollars (it’s down $35 billion as we write), and a number of Twitter activists launched the #DeleteFacebook campaign. In our opinion, first, the action comes a bit late —the horse has well and truly bolted — and second, the incident underscores yet again people’s dependence on modern technology and vulnerability to it.
A dime a dozen
Let’s deal with the chronology first. It really began in 2014 with a study by Wu Youyou and Michal Kosinski of Cambridge and Stanford Universities, respectively, along with a coauthor from Stanford University.
As part of the research, participants were asked to create a personality portrait based on the OCEAN model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extravertism, Agreeableness, Neuroticism), involving downloading the Facebook app MyPersonality, which analyzed their likes. About 86,000 people took part. The authors’ main conclusion was that the Web knows much more about people than people know about themselves. Sure thing, Sherlock.
The results attracted the interest of another Cambridge University professor by the name of Alexander Kogan. Kogan is reported to have asked to see the initial research data, but was declined. It’s not known why — professional ethics, potential legal trouble with Facebook (although officially no rules would have been broken at the time), or academic rivalry. Whatever the case, soon after the exchange, Kogan decided to conduct his own study.
In the meantime, Facebook tightened its privacy settings, making likes inaccessible to third-party apps by default. But then crowdsourcing came to Kogan’s rescue — in the form of Amazon Mechanical Turk, where the app Thisisyourdigitallife was hosted. Users were informed that the app had been created for the purpose of conducting a psychological study, and Kogan was named as the research leader.
The purpose of the research was stated as follows: to study the likes of as many Facebook users as possible and build sociopsychological profiles based on that information. The participants, about 270,000 in all, were paid a dollar each.
There was nothing criminal about the study itself — except perhaps the price tag ($270,000 is quite an outlay for a psychological study, and one doubts that the Cambridge professor paid for it himself).
However, such data is a goldmine for market scientists — and not only those who work for commercial companies, but also those in political parties. The idea that political figures are marketable like consumer goods to the masses (based on target group preferences) has been around since Stanley Milgram began conducting his renowned sociopsychological experiments.
Milgram is remembered today for, among other things, his revelations about the interconnectedness of North Americans. It’s likely Milgram thought the development of technology would bring us ever closer together. But even he could not have imagined that, having obtained data on hundreds of thousands of people, research commissioners would be able to up that figure to hundreds of times greater (according to the latest accusations against Cambridge Analytica) than the original number of respondents.
That was because in handing over information about their likes, research participants simultaneously also gave away their Facebook friends’ likes, raising the count to over 50 million.
How did Cambridge Analytica wind up with 50 million profiles?
How Kogan’s guinea pigs became the property of a firm in Cambridge is another murky tale. Cambridge Analytica is a subsidiary of a communications company, SCL (Strategic Communications Laboratories), which specializes in data processing.
The details vary depending on the source: Some say Kogan was a cofounder of SCL, others that he was only a research operator hired by the firm. Commercial companies outsource sociological and psychological research to universities — it’s standard practice. However, in such cases, universities (almost) never hand over the personal data of their research participants to the commissioners of the study — only faceless statistics.
According to Facebook’s version of events, as soon as the company became aware, back in 2015, that SCL/Cambridge Analytica was in possession of user data, the social media giant immediately requested its deletion. But Facebook’s response failed to convince doubters; hence the snowballing #DeleteFacebook campaign.
The story is multifaceted, it must be said. For a start, there’s a strong whiff of academic rivalry — the desire of researchers to outdo each other in terms of sample size. Then, there’s the likelihood that the user agreement with the participants was violated — they were probably (and their Facebook friends were certainly) not informed that their data would be given to third parties. Lastly, there are the dubious actions of Facebook itself.
What do Facebook users have to do with all this?
For us users, it’s another wake-up call. How many more incidents will it take before people finally smell the coffee and realize that their social media presence affects not only them, but also those they interact with? And when apps like GetContact, MyPersonality, and Thisisyourdigitallife are making the rounds, think twice before clicking.
But the social media genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. Calling on people to delete themselves from social media is no less belated than announcing the termination of contracts with an analytics company two full years after everything that might have happened already did.
According to our data, 78% of users would quite like to kick the social media habit, but they feel they can’t. For 62% of them, it’s just too convenient a tool for keeping in touch with friends and family. What’s more, many have no inkling of how much information (videos, photos, messages) they’ve published out there on social media, including, of course, on Facebook.