Was Facebook gamed? More questions as Cambridge Analytica CEO suspended

21 Mar 2018

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Cambridge Analytica suspends CEO as UK parliament seeks answers from Zuckerberg.

Serious questions are being raised over Cambridge Analytica’s work in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and the Brexit referendum of the same year. Ultimately, people want to know: was Facebook gamed to manipulate democracy?

The scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s alleged harvesting of 50m Facebook users’ data without their permission is spiralling and the former company’s board has suspended CEO Alexander Nix.

In a statement, Cambridge Analytica’s board said that Nix’s comments – which were secretly recorded by Channel 4 News – as well as other allegations against the firm were not representative of “the values or operations of the firm, and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which it views this violation”.

Since the scandal was broken by the Observer at the weekend, Facebook share value has now fallen by 9pc, wiping $60bn in market value over the last two days.

There have been calls in the US, the UK and the EU for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before members of respective parliaments and clarify that Facebook user data is not being used to manipulate democracy.

The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has issued a call for Zuckerberg to appear before members.

US senator Mark Warner, chair of the Intelligence Committee, has also requested that Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs testify to answer questions about Facebook’s role in alleged social manipulation of the US presidential election.

Meanwhile, British MPs are calling on Zuckerberg to come to Westminster to give evidence about the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica.

For its part, Facebook has said very little, except to express outrage at the UK firm’s actions. According to reports, Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg are working around the clock to understand precisely what has happened, how to respond to calls from various governments for answers and how to ensure that Facebook will not be gamed again.

More questions than answers over alleged manipulation of democracy

The key questions will centre on the work that Cambridge Analytica had done with Trump’s US presidential campaign as well as with pro-Brexit campaigners in Britain’s referendum.

Indeed, 2016 produced two of the most bizarre results in political history: the election of Trump and the UK’s exit from the EU, with a litany of damaging consequences for people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Zuckerberg is now being accused by UK MPs of misleading them during earlier hearings.

The Conservative chair of Westminster’s digital, culture, media and sport committee, Damian Collins, wrote to Zuckerberg stating his belief that representatives of the social network skirted questions about how other firms acquired and retained user data from Facebook, and if it had been done without their consent.

“It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process. Given your commitment at the start of the new year to ‘fixing’ Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

Crucial questions centre on how this data might have been used to manipulate and sway voter sentiment during the Brexit campaign and the US presidential election.

At the heart of the matter is the involvement of Conservative donor Robert Mercer, who partnered with Nix to create Cambridge Analytica, which would then use its datasets to allegedly help deliver the Brexit vote as well as the Trump victory.

The rub of the matter is an app called This Is Your Digital Life, which was allegedly used by University of Cambridge psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan to gather data on Facebook users. The app was downloaded 270,000 times and users consented to give up personal details as well as connections to their friends list.

Kogan had allegedly assured Facebook that the data would be anonymised and that it was only to be used for research purposes. However, it is believed that Kogan shared the dataset with Christopher Wylie of Euonia Technologies.

While this was happening, it is understood that Cambridge Analytica tapped into the gig economy using Amazon Mechanical Turk, offering workers $1 or $2 to complete an online survey.

Using these and a variety of other methods, Cambridge Analytica was alleged to have been capable of building a comprehensive profile of users that isn’t normally available to Facebook advertisers, with the result that a political operation had powerful information on 50m users that could be useful to its benefactors.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years