Over the past two months, the story around Facebook’s data leak has grown and along with it has the response from the site’s users. Everyone has heard about the leak, but few people know what actually happened between the social media platform, its users, and Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica is a political data firm hired by Trump’s election campaign in 2016, and their access to data on millions of Facebook users likely played a large role in Trump’s win. In fact, CEO Alexander Nix has been quoted saying that the company’s “revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part” in the win.
The firm collects data on potential voters to learn how to better influence them with political ads. The data from Facebook was made up of basic information; people’s “friends”, “likes”, and their locations. So, how did Cambridge Analytica come into possession of this data?
Facebook didn’t just give it out to them, in fact, the story really begins in 2014. In that year, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, put out a personality survey that collected data on not only the respondents but their Facebook friends. There were 270,000 respondents to the survey, but Kogan was able to harvest information on over 87 million people.
This collection was allowed by Facebook because it was under the guise of “academic research.” Facebook often makes money from selling data to researchers, and this is legal and no breach as long as the purposes are academic. The real problem occurred when Dr. Kogan provided the data to Cambridge Analytica since the firm used the data for political reasons. Since the situation became public, Cambridge Analytica blames Kogan for violating Facebook’s rules and said they deleted the data, but copies are thought to still exist.
This series of events has gotten national attention, and Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, testified before Congress for two days in April in order to answer questions about Facebook’s handling of data.
The hours were filled with awkward lines of questioning where Zuckerberg explained the basic workings of the platform to Congresspeople, which produced many memes focused on the topic. For example, Senator Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg how he sustains “a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” to which the CEO responded, “Senator, we run ads.” There were also images circulated of Zuckerberg sitting on a booster seat, mechanically drinking water, and smiling seemingly on command.
This huge reception was definitely a contributor to awareness of the circumstances. In fact, both of the Facebook users who I interviewed directly referenced Zuckerberg’s testimony when asked what they knew about the Cambridge Analytica situation as a whole.
Junior Lucien Hearn spoke of the questioning, saying that the Congresspeople “are old people who don’t understand the internet, so they’re asking really dumb questions,” but that at the same time, “that was useful for anyone who needs to fully understand the conversation.”
Junior Ameer Johnson admitted, “I have no idea what Zuckerberg did. I just know he did something, I don’t know if it was illegal…I’ve heard about him testifying in front of Congress and about people’s information getting sold. I didn’t know what the company’s name was, who sold [the information].”
Along with the questioning, further pushback came from the Federal Trade Commision, which claims that Facebook may have violated the terms of an agreement made with them in 2011. The subject of the agreement was the safety of user information, and if it is found that there were violations, Facebook may have to pay millions to the FTC. Additionally, an investigation into the scandal has been taken on by the attorney generals from New York and Massachusetts.
As for users’ responses to the incident, a study done by Techpinions of 1000 Facebook users found that 9% of respondents had deleted their Facebook accounts. However, this whole thing may not even need be of concern to Facebook. Although stocks dropped rapidly following the initial exposure of the data leak, the company has made a swift recovery, which was aided by Zuckerberg’s responses to Congress’s questions. According to Forbes, during the first day of questioning, Facebook’s stock closed up 4.5%.
Johnson, who uses Facebook for about an hour total each day, says that the leak will not really affect the way he uses the site because, “I don’t put a lot of personal stuff on my Facebook, I haven’t really updated my profile since like 2015 maybe. So even though I’ve used it like every day since 2015, I just don’t post pictures of me, I don’t post a lot of information, I don’t even know if I put where I live on there.”
He added that “I’ve seen people’s profiles that have a lot of personal information in them, and I just don’t do any of that. I just go in there and look at news, at pictures, and memes. That’s really all I use it for.”
Part of Facebook’s appeal to Johnson is its convenience.
“I don’t have to use my internet browser to go on Fox News or something to look at stuff,” he said. “It’s surprising that I didn’t really know about this because Facebook’s how I learn a lot about the world issues that are happening. That’s funny- it’s one of the only things I didn’t know about…it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re not putting that on here.’”
Hearn uses Facebook several times a week to connect with friends. He, like Johnson, doesn’t post anything personal, and said that the occurrences have strangely lent to him using it more because he has “actually remembered that it exists.”
He commented that although it is not inherently bad for all types information to be available online, “People should be aware of the information that is out there because if it is used, they should be aware of the implications of that.”