The scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica once again raised serious concerns about data security and the legitimacy of political campaign practices. In the midst of heated discussion and requests for something to be done, the greatest question remains whether any law or political initiative has the capacity to effectively curb the power of data and social media companies.
British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) illegally gained access to 50 million Facebook user profiles by exploiting Facebook’s cooperation with third-party provided apps. According to a whistleblower, CA used the information from these profiles to create targeted political advertisement in support of the Trump campaign in 2016.
The trend reached European shores as well, in the polarizing climate of the Brexit referendum. Given the evidence in this case, it has become abundantly clear that the actions of CA did in fact constitute illegal campaign practices.
The efficacy of campaigns such as the one run by CA is hard to gauge. Political psychology research by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer of Stanford University and the University of Toronto shows that political arguments become significantly more persuasive if they are articulated in a manner that is in accordance with the values of the person that is targeted.
The extensive information that users share voluntarily on social media makes it possible to create psychological profiles that facilitate such targeted marketing. In many ways, this is the business model of Facebook.
According to the whistleblower who provided information on the practices of CA, the firm would gather detailed information on people’s opinions, values, sources of information, as well as the preferred medium through which they consume information.
This signifies a new and revolutionarily effective method of political persuasion, as one is able to tailor communication perfectly to the individual, thus maximizing persuasive power.
Having negligently provided the ammunition for the campaigns of CA, Facebook’s image has taken a massive hit in the wake of this scandal. When this massive data breach was revealed to the public, Facebook took a considerable amount of time before making a statement, and ultimately proclaimed that the company was not aware that CA was using these profiles. This statement attempted to showcase that the company was not criminally culpable in the same way as CA apparently is, but it revealed the gross negligence of the social media giant.
Consumers who were again made aware of their data’s vulnerability in Facebook’s hands reacted angrily, while the Twitter hashtag #deletefacebook was trending as people openly voiced their discontent about the practices of the company. The stock price of Facebook declined sharply, by an accumulative $70 billion, after the story broke.
Fury was seen in the hallways of Brussels and European capitals, where some celebrate, and some are wary of the increased power that big data firms have accumulated in recent years.
“EU consumer rules should be respected, and if companies don’t comply, they should face sanctions,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said in a statement, describing CA’s actions as “drastic manipulation.”
“Some companies are now making their platforms safer for consumers; however, it is unacceptable that this is still not complete, and it is taking so much time,” Jourova said.
German Justice Minister Katarina Barley declared that these data-driven election campaign methods are a danger for democracy. “The question of what happens with the data of 30 million German users is a central issue of consumer protection,” she said.
The European Union consequently announced stronger data security laws combined with extended opportunities for sanctioning data-gathering companies that fail to abide by these rules.
European data law is already inherently more restrictive than in the U.S., where Facebook is based. The user has to give explicit permission and needs to be aware of what is happening with his data — which means that any future legal framework would include the possibility of stronger sanctions.
However, even the bureaucrats involved in drafting this legislation expect there to be cases of future misuse of data. As the outrage withers away to be replaced by some other outrage, and modern lives continue to be dominated by communication and social media, it is unclear whether effective measures can be taken politically to prevent similar cases in the future.
The real issue surrounding this scandal is not necessarily that CA got their hands onto the information that Facebook could provide, but rather that the information exists in the first place. Facebook does not charge its users — more specifically, it does not charge their credit cards. But it does charge their users’ social and personal capital, and then makes money by selling information and ad space.
With advertisers who know where the audience is, most big data companies are unlikely to change their practices — some of them may camouflage them, while some may outright break the rules, and simply plan the budget for paying periodic fines.
Furthermore, the research of Feinberg and Miller cited above implicates that political persuasion can function much more subtly than most people assume. This makes legislative action against illegitimate practices highly complex. Even if political ads were banned from social media altogether, news feeds could be created in such a customized manner to produce a perception of reality more conducive to the political ends of a favored candidate.
It was naïve to believe that targeted advertisements were only going to be used by companies offering their products to the most interested individuals. The massive potential of these campaigns was sure to be used for political ends sooner or later.
Even the EU legislators argued that, ultimately, Facebook and other social media giants escape the scope of political action, as no law will be able to secure citizens’ data fully and ensure that undue manipulation is impossible.
At the end of the day, the responsibility falls to the individual and a personal choice — if the right choice is even possible in this post-truth world.