In a few short years before the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., various Republicans hired a data firm called Cambridge Analytica (CA) to boost their campaigns. The firm collected data on 50-60 million Facebook users within the span of 2-3 short months.
But CA is more than a data firm, according to Christopher Wylie, their former Head of Research. It’s a propaganda machine, he says, bent on doing much more than crunching data for clients. Their objective is to use the data they harvest to go out and actually change minds.
CEO Alexander Nix claims to be able to sway the hearts and minds of voters, and was caught on video, explicitly saying so. How could that be possible? The way it happened with the U.S. election was through those silly quizzes my old college friend was so fond of.
Facebook-Approved Apps With Alarming Privacy Terms Were the Key
CA used a Facebook app that paid users $1 to $2 every time they completed a personality quiz. The app was developed by Aleksandr Kogan, who coded privacy settings that would have made users’ hair stand on end if they knew what was happening.
By completing the quizzes and accepting the terms (and the money), Facebook users unwittingly gave Kogan’s app permission to access their list of Facebook friends… and those friends’ profiles. By touching just a few hundred thousand users with their app, they were able to grab personal profiles of around 50 million users because of that friends clause.
Facebook User Profiles Fueled a Propaganda Machine
Then, CA used the enormous trove of data to begin a military opps-style operation that went far beyond mere ‘data mining’. The quizzes revealed basic personality factors about the users, such as what they feared, their openness, and other tendencies. Even data on childhood trauma and intelligence were gleaned.
Then CA went to work. Using the personality tendency data they derived from quizzes, they created a massive online content campaign. Blog posts, articles… whatever various types of content people responded to, they created it and used it to speak to the fears and concerns of U.S. voters. Christopher Wylie called it a ‘web of disinformation’, used to sway perceptions and, in many cases, change people’s minds about the presidential candidates.
Facebook Plays a Role in World Affairs, Alright
And how does Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, feel about all this? The New York Times asked him if he felt any guilt for Facebook’s role in world affairs, which includes allowing his platform to be used as a tool for interference in a presidential election. Here’s what he said:
“We’re doing something here which is unprecedented, in terms of building a community for people all over the world to be able to share what matters to them, and connect across boundaries.”
Keep in mind that Kogan, developer of the overreaching app, claims a “close working relationship” with Facebook. He also claims that Facebook gave him permission to use the apps.
Facebook Has Never Been a Friend of Privacy
To understand Mark Zuckerburg’s view and why he seems to be hedging around taking any sort of real action, all we need to do is go back 14 years, when he started Facebook. In his own words, he reveals his general impression of ‘the masses’ and the sense of data-derived power that he held, even back then.
“I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS. People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks”
-Mark Zuckerberg, 2004
His power then came from knowing things about people and it still does. It’s why he started the platform in the first place, claiming he could find out anything about anyone.
How can someone like that now claim to care about privacy? You can’t call people ‘dumb fucks’ for handing over private information and then claim to care about their privacy, even if it is 14 years later. Zuckerberg’s condescending attitude toward people is so very evident in that statement. His disregard for privacy matters stems from a dangerous, despicable cocktail made of arrogance, short-sightedness, and ignorance at best. At worst, he’s a greedy liar.
Maybe you believe he simply wanted to start an online community where people shared with one another to form a global community of peace, love, and understanding. Maybe you believe his greatest fault is ignorance.
Well, then you’re the ‘dumb fuck’, Zuckerberg, because you got used. Cambridge Analytica used Facebook as a tool to get Donald Trump elected and you stood by.
It’s funny that he should be so ignorant about one of the most important issues of this era (privacy), when his platform has amassed the biggest aggregation of private data in the world. The only way to reconcile that is to conclude that he’s not ignorant, he’s just not to be believed. He’s a social malcontent who cares for Facebook users about as much as Donald J. Trump cares for the rural poor he claims to represent. No wonder he seems to be anti-regulation as well as anti-privacy.
Facebook: Anti-Regulation, Anti-Corporate Social Responsibility
Here’s another thing about Facebook that causes the skin to crawl when Zuckerberg tries to sound genuine about privacy.
Internet companies who post user content on online platforms, like Facebook, have enjoyed liability protections for years. In essence, these protections allow them to claim ignorance and non-culpability in cases where illegal content is published on their sites. Such content includes ads for sex trafficking websites and hate groups, for example. A bill in the U.S. Congress would lift such protections, in efforts to combat sex trafficking.
Facebook fought the bill for years. Maybe it’s a business move. In the end, however, someone like Zuckerberg, who has so much power and so much money, can’t claim to care about humanity while, behind the scenes, he’s fighting that bill.
So, in addition to everything else, Zuckerberg is also no champion of corporate social responsibility.
Zuckerberg Disingenuous? Yes. Criminal? We’ll See
There’s a lot to hate Facebook for these days, but the Cambridge Analytica debacle may just trump them all. Even if you give Mark Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt regarding his intentions for starting and growing Facebook (and I don’t know why you would, knowing all this), there’s no possible scenario from this point forward that ends with him looking anything other than deplorable. He’s the king of the deplorables. He may even be a criminal but nothing of that nature has surfaced.
You can say one thing, though. The Cambridge Analytica events make it clear that we need better privacy regulation of companies like Facebook. It’s unlikely Trump will step up, which makes it a real shame that Mark Zuckerberg has such disregard for basic human values like privacy and democracy.
If only he cared, he might place self-imposed privacy measures on his creation, leading the way for a better experience on Facebook and a more private experience on the internet. He might also prevent election tampering, illegal trafficking, and a whole host of other internet crimes. He has that power.
Marc Gagné CCIE, CHTI, CCII, CCTA, CIPP/G/C, CTFI, MAPP
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