All eyes have been on Facebook since news broke earlier this month that Cambridge Analytica, a London-based political consulting firm, used personal data from 50 million users to help President Donald Trump’s campaign. The company, which first worked with Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign before switching over to Trump’s team, used data mined from Facebook to create personality profiles of voters based on their likes, previous searches and interactions with other accounts. These were used to create an online campaign strategy tailored to each individual.
In 2014, Aleksandr Kogan, an independent researcher, created a personality test app that required users to connect their Facebook accounts. Zuckerberg agreed to allowing Kogan’s app collect user data. Kogan later passed along data he collected to Cambridge Analytica. Though done entirely out of the public perview, Cambridge Analytica denied any wrongdoing.
Facebook has since banned Cambridge Analytica and Kogan’s app from the site, and while it may be easy to point blame at any company, can we really be so quick to anger when we willingly put all of that personal information on Facebook to begin with? Regardless of the legality of their actions, Cambridge Analytica has undoubtedly heralded a new era of election technology and political science. If social media is to prevail in its current form, users will be forced to adapt.
In response to the uncovering of Cambridge Analytica data mining, #DeleteFacebook consumed Twitter, with several celebrities and big-name companies taking part. Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, encouraged his Twitter followers to delete Facebook. Elon Musk deleted all of his companies’ Facebook pages.
But will that really make a difference? Facebook is just one of several social media platforms that could have been targeted, including Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat — Facebook even owns Instagram. In this digital age, data mining is increasing in popularity and companies similar to Cambridge Analytica are bound to pop up and target other social media platforms, whether with political motives or otherwise. On top of that, web trackers, like cookies embedded into websites and advertisements, as well as cell phone companies, already track online activity. Companies like Cambridge Analytica are determined and deceptive, and the internet is difficult to regulate.
No matter how many slaps on the wrist Zuckerberg or Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix receive, Cambridge Analytica has already had a profound global impact. Cambridge Analytica has helped influence over 100 elections in more than 30 countries. The company is also believed to have played a role in swaying the 2016 UK referendum in favor of Brexit. But while Cambridge Analytica’s actions can be viewed as criminal and malicious, the use of online data to in the political sphere was probably inevitable. Data in and of itself has also become a valuable commodity. Nearly all technology companies already rely on user data to determine how people use their apps or devices. That same technology was bound to find its way into politics.
Cambridge Analytica has used, and is continuing to use, its power to undermine democracy, offering aide exclusively to far-right candidates across the world. It should be reprimanded for its deceit and distrusted for its political motives, but users deleting Facebook in fear won’t weaken its power. The government has a record of falling behind in regulating the tech sphere, so it is doubtful that Cambridge Analytica will face real detriment any time soon. Perhaps maybe one day, such advanced data analysis could be used benefit to the democratic process rather than harm it, so long as it is made available to all parties in elections and used with voters’ knowledge. But as long as Cambridge Analytica is exercising its influence over the political institutions that be, all we can do is be aware and remain critical of what we read on our feeds.
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Email Ali Zimmerman at [email protected].