The plot was made for front-page headlines and cable-news chyrons: A scientist-turned-political-operative reportedly hoodwinked Facebook users into giving up personal data on both themselves and all their friends for research purposes, then used it to develop “psychographic” profiles on tens of millions of voters—which in turn may have helped the Trump campaign manipulate its way to a historic victory. No wonder Facebook is in deep trouble, right? Investigations are being opened; calls for regulation are mounting; Facebook’s stock plunged 7 percent Monday.
Sensational as it sounds, however, the Cambridge Analytica scandal doesn’t indict Facebook in quite the way it might seem. It reveals almost nothing about the social network or its data policies that wasn’t already widely known, and there’s little evidence of blatant wrongdoing by Facebook or its employees. It’s also far from clear what impact, if any, the ill-gotten personal data had on the election’s outcome.
In short, the outrage now directed at Facebook feels disproportionate to the company’s culpability in this specific episode. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to be outraged. For Facebook, the larger scandal here is not what shadowy misdeeds it allowed Cambridge Analytica to do. It’s what Facebook allowed anyone to do, in plain sight—and, more broadly, it’s the data-fueled online business model that Facebook helped to pioneer.
The Facebook tools and policies that allowed researcher Aleksandr Kogan in 2014 to obtain information for the political-data firm Cambridge Analytica—via an app called Thisismydigitallife—were public and well-known. They were also quite permissive, allowing developers to collect data not only on users who signed up for their app, but also on those users’ Facebook friends. (Facebook has since changed that policy.) As the Washington Post points out, entities ranging from Tinder to FarmVille to Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaignused the same tool to collect many of the same kinds of information. As late as 2015, this was simply how Facebook worked... read more: