While scrolling through your Facebook timeline, you might have noticed something called Cambridge Analytica pop up more than once. If that less-than-thrilling name did not grab your attention, then Facebook’s staggering $80 billion market value loss surely did. What trouble is Facebook in, and can it find you?
The basic premise of the situation, as noted by The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, is that over 50 million Facebook users had their user data passed on to and looked over by the data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica acquired every liked or shared post as well as the particular preferences of any single person.
While using Facebook data is not necessarily illegal in and of itself, much of the fury surrounds Facebook for the perceived breach of privacy and Cambridge Analytica’s mission.
What sets Cambridge Analytica apart from other data analysis firms is its usage of psychometric rather than demographic advertising. As Vox’s Sean Illing explained, psychometric advertising is a more individually targeted form of Facebook ads. Rather than tailoring ads towards large swathes of general demographics, such as Millennials or K-pop fans, psychometrics are based more off of an individual’s psychological profile.
Little personality quizzes psychologist Aleksandr Koganby hosted on Facebook saw vast numbers of users voluntarily revealing information about themselves, such as how strongly they may feel about certain positions. A St. Petersburg University research team that Kogan advised utilized the quizzes which came in the form of 61-question app for Russian users, hoping to pick up on a “dark triad” of traits-psychopathy, narcissism, and machiavellianism. These original tests were done with the users’ consent and, according to Reuters, this data was never passed on to Kogan.
Kogan allegedly went a step further, though, and took data from the quiz and passed it on to Cambridge Analytica, who used the study results to get a clearer psychological profile of types of Facebook users. However, Kogan did not only take data from people who participated in his quiz; Kogan also accessed and shared data from all of the Facebook friends of any quiz participants.
So while only an estimated 270,000 people took Kogan’s personality quiz, he was able to share data from 50 million users with Cambridge Analytica.
Demographic-based ads have to deal with the problem of being too general. While they may have a particular group in mind, they nevertheless have to cast their net wide and hope that their ads find their mark. Cambridge Analytica’s work bypasses this generalist approach and informs interested parties exactly which individuals it believes will be most interested in their ads.
Furthermore, although Cambridge Analytica claims to be politically neutral like most other data analysis firms, concern is directed towards the influence that right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer has on the company. His $15 million investment, per the advice of Donald Trump’s disgraced former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, as well as its involvement in the Trump Campaign and Brexit Leave movement, have raised criticisms that Cambridge Analytica has a political agenda. Further evidence for this is alleged to have come from information shared by former Cambridge Analytica Employee-turned-whistleblower Chris Wylie.
As reported in Reuters, Wylie told The Observer that “We [Cambridge Analytica] exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. 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.”
Why is Facebook under fire for others’ data abuse? For the past year and a half, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have come under intense scrutiny for the role they potentially played in the 2016 Presidential Election. So far, Zuckerberg has been reluctant to share just how deeply Facebook affected the election. Now, the Cambridge Analytica scandal brings new questions about how Facebook was used to manipulate the election and to what extent social media giants should be regulated.