Tuesday , March 20, 2018 - 4:30 AM
Ever take one of those silly personality tests on Facebook? Your friends took the quiz (“What city should you actually live in?” was a popular one), so you followed the link to a website, answered some questions and shared the result: “Paris.” All in good fun within your private social media group, right?
Yes, unless information from a quiz like that was harvested without consent or knowledge by a political data firm connected to the Trump campaign. In which case, your private musings may have contributed to a “psychographic modeling” effort to identify and influence American voters.
That’s the damning centerpiece of news reports about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a data firm founded by supporters of Donald Trump. There’s a lot to be explored in the wake of investigative reporting by The New York Times and The Observer of London, but this privacy breach has the feel of a watershed moment in digital history. It relates to the devious appropriation of personal social media info for political gain. We expect Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and those connected to Cambridge Analytica, will have to answer for this to the public, Facebook users, law enforcement authorities and members of Congress.
Here’s some of what we know: Cambridge Analytica, founded by conservative firebrand Steve Bannon and Republican donor Robert Mercer, hired Russian-American researcher Aleksandr Kogan to create a quiz designed to identify Facebook users’ personality traits, political views and other characteristics, such as fair-mindedness or life satisfaction. The quiz participants, and Facebook, were told the information was for academic purposes. Instead the data went to Cambridge Analytica.
That’s only part of the story. About 270,000 people agreed to take the test, but Kogan’s tools also could scrape information from participants’ Facebook friends. According to the Times, Cambridge Analytica obtained private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission — all to help influence several elections, including Trump’s run for president.
Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica founder turned whistleblower, said in an interview with The Guardian that the information culled from Facebook included status updates and, in some cases, private messages. “We would know what kinds of messaging you would be susceptible to, and where you are going to consume that,” Wylie explained. “And then how many times do we need to touch you with that in order to change how you think about that.”
We don’t know for certain if this data swayed voters in any elections. But the Trump campaign, which used Cambridge Analytica, claimed that it successfully applied data-driven techniques to target Trump voters. The Times said information from the breach underpinned the firm’s work on Trump’s campaign.
For Facebook users, here’s the rub: Even if no voters were influenced, Facebook apparently failed to prevent the misuse of private information from 50 million Americans for political purposes. This is a scandalous flub by the social media giant.
We anticipate scrutiny of Facebook that includes regulatory and congressional questions. There may be no appropriate measures to control the flow of information in a free society, but let Zuckerberg and others rethink their social media businesses and security practices.
For social media users, the message feels clearer than ever: Beware. Wherever you go and whatever you say online is potentially of value to others. If they see it, they may grab it.
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