Title Facebook’s week of shame: the Cambridge Analytica fallout | Technology | The Guardian
Publication Date 2018-03-24
Text Mark Zuckerberg kept his silence – then did little to assuage the anger in a week that laid bare the worst of Silicon Valley
Every story has a beginning. For me, the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that has unfolded so spectacularly this past week began in a cafe in Holloway, north London, at the beginning of 2017.
I was having a coffee with my colleague Carole Cadwalladr. She had recently written a series of articles that set out how certain Google search terms had been “hijacked by the alt-right”. In the course of that investigation she explained how she had come across another pattern of activity apparently linking the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns, one that appeared to involve the billionaire Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon – then of Breitbart – and a secretive British company called Cambridge Analytica. She laid out the elements of what she knew, and what she didn’t, testing her conviction that “there’s definitely something there”.
In the year and more since, Carole has painstakingly pieced together that story from its disparate and determinedly obstructive elements. She has done this in the face of much scepticism, a series of legal challenges and several attempts at intimidation (last summer the Leave.EU campaign posted a photoshopped video of her being beaten up and circulated it for days). Last weekend, however, the “something there” that Carole had intuited about the story, and its full implications for our democracy, came into proper focus.
The trajectory of what happened since is a case study in how complex truths stubbornly pieced together can eventually capture the wider imagination. The first act in this drama was a legal challenge by Facebook, an attempt to suppress Carole’s interview with the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie the day before it appeared. They must have known a little of what was coming.
Quick guide The Observer Show Hide The Observer is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, founded in 1791. It is published by Guardian News & Media and is editorially independent.
The Observer had made the decision to share the revelations with the New York Times and with Channel 4 News, to pool resources and broaden its reach. Even so, on Sunday morning some experienced commentators initially just shrugged. On his sofa, Andrew Marr felt he could pretty much ignore the story, dismissing it as “too complicated” to merit much attention. JK Rowling, meanwhile, suggested in a tweet that it was “surely the story of the year, if not the decade”. In the days that followed, the latter reaction has seemed closer to the mark.
This was partly down to one of the more memorable pieces of journalistic theatre. Rarely, in real time, can hypocrisy have been exposed so pointedly as on Monday night’s Channel 4 News. That afternoon, Alexander Nix, the self-possessed Etonian chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, had been plaintively professing his company’s rectitude to the BBC, and suggesting that he was the victim of a co-ordinated smear campaign. That evening, he and his managing director, Mark Turnbull, were shown explaining to undercover Channel 4 reporters exactly how they had manipulated the voters of democracies across the globe, notably in the US, with unsourced propaganda that was not necessarily true; and boasting of sting operations and honey traps
In a way, that was only the warm-up act of the story. Nix’s unwitting confessions were in marked contrast to the silence from Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. All anyone knew of Facebook’s response on Monday was that it had a swat team of data analysts working overnight at Cambridge Analytica’s offices – though that same data remained out of bounds for the government’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who was trying in vain to get a warrant to access files before they were potentially compromised. Zuckerberg declined to face his own employees at a meeting on Tuesday, while again a press statement from his PR team suggested that “the entire company is outraged we were deceived”. The continued silence seemed to tell another story, however, not least to Wall Street; in those two days nearly $60bn was wiped off the Facebook market capitalisation, and #whereszuck became a top-trending social media meme.
As the silence persisted, a little of Zuckerberg’s public relations dilemma became clear. The original legal threat to the Observer was over the question of whether the 50 million profiles handed first to the Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and then sold on to Cambridge Analytica constituted a data breach. Facebook insisted that it did not, but that insistence itself amounted to a public acknowledgement of a business model that appeared to allow the unauthorised sale of private data.
When Zuckerberg did eventually come out to try to explain this, his crafted statement was another effort to make the exploitation of the 50 million profiles seem like a technical problem, a glitch. His tone was the default position of T-shirted Silicon Valley plutocrats who insist that they are on our side, while squirrelling away their billions. What had happened was not a data breach “but a breach of trust”, he suggested, a sentiment he repeats in a personal advertisement in today’s newspapers, including the Observer.
This appeal to Facebook users’ faith in its better nature recalled an infamous recorded exchange from the early days of Facebook at Harvard, when Zuckerberg was in conversation with a friend.
Zuck: “Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard, just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS.”
Friend: “What? How’d you manage that one?”
Zuck: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me’. Dumb fucks!”
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix (right) talking about his company’s role in the US presidential election to an undercover reporter for Channel 4 News. Photograph: Channel 4 News/PA
People closest to the beneficiaries of Cambridge Analytica’s work have been quickest to suggest that it was negligible. Though Cambridge Analytica’s own claims suggest that its tens of thousands of propaganda items were viewed billions of times, Steve Bannon suggested the effect was insignificant: people have minds of their own and are not swayed by what they see and hear on the internet, the argument goes.
To counter this, you don’t really have to point out that we live in a world where a significant percentage of people now believe that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax perpetrated by actors, or that sharia law is about to take hold in the home counties, you just have to point to the history of advertising.
Propaganda works best, as Cambridge Analytica’s Mark Turnbull helpfully pointed out to camera, when you do not know its source. He excitedly detailed the way in which extremist views and fake news could be “seeded” in the bloodstream of social media and then take hold. Facebook in particular has, in this respect, delivered what propagandists have always wanted, a complete blurring of the line – still sacrosanct in traditional media – between editorial and advertising, often delivered with the added reliability of having been “shared” by a “friend”.
As David Kirkpatrick, Facebook’s authorised biographer, noted, one characteristic of the first eight years of the company was a tendency for Zuckerberg and his inner circle to sit around and try to establish exactly what business they were in.
Early on, Zuckerberg liked to refer to his creation as “a directory of people” in these discussions; later he came to focus on “connectivity”. A more cynical response to that question has always been that they were in the advertising business, but as the writer John Lanchester pointed out, even that doesn’t really get to the truth. “Even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business.” It is designed to watch our every move, our every like and dislike, and sell those findings to the highest bidder.
For the majority of the 2.1 billion users of Facebook up until now, that has seemed like a price worth paying, in order to connect with friends and family. The wisdom promoted by the tech companies to their users is that privacy is only for those with something to hide. What the Cambridge Analytica story has begun to reveal about those companies’ use of our intimate history of likes and dislikes, of private messages and personal photos, is that they cannot only be used to target us with holidays and theatre tickets, but also to shape our news of the world, and our political ideas, in ways we don’t recognise.
That understanding has, it seems, now reached something of a tipping point.
Immediate ramifications of the exposé will see the prime movers in this story called to clarify previous statements to government committees on both sides of the Atlantic. Beyond that, last week may prove an important step in a long reckoning over whether monopolistic global corporations are best trusted with so much marketable personal data to exploit for personal gain.
The great rupture of the industrial revolution led eventually to the growth of trade unions and a new balance of power between capital and producer. The sheer pace of change of the digital revolution in our century has meant that the equivalent rebalancing is critically overdue. Last week even the Economist was persuaded of the need for Facebook in particular to make radical changes to its data practices, or for governments to call time on its model. “If Facebook ends up as a regulated utility with its returns on capital capped, its earnings may drop by 80%. How would you like that, Mr Zuckerberg?”
When faced with the often anonymised global entity of the internet, it has been easy to buy the argument that the forces at work in it are too opaque and complex to hold to account. What the Cambridge Analytica revelations bring to light – through old-fashioned journalistic persistence – is that those forces are, in fact, open to the same kinds of manipulation and corruption that any media needs protection from, but on a far greater scale. The story has given the growing unease about the unaccountable empire-building of Silicon Valley tech companies an all-too-human set of faces. It may not be a pretty sight, but it is not one that will be easily forgotten.
The Observer’s story last week on the use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica sparked a worldwide response:
“This is a serious moment for the web’s future. But I want us to remain hopeful.”
Tim Berners-Lee, world wide web inventor
“[Facebook] has been misleading in its evidence to a British parliamentarycommittee, arrogant in its instinct to shirk the responsibilities that come with power.”
“It is absolutely right the information commissioner is investigating … we expect all the organisations involved to cooperate…” Brian Acton, WhatsApp
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you … We also made mistakes.”
What is disturbing is that Facebook has not yet identified and alerted users whose profile information was vacuumed up
New York Times
There are a number of inconsistencies in your evidence... Giving false statements to a select committee is a very serious matter
Damian Collins MP in a letter to Alexander Nix