Since last fall, Facebook, Twitter and Google have faced intense scrutiny and pressure after reports of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, primarily through the Kremlin’s use of these online platforms to divide and exploit American voters.
And with this weekend’s revelation into Facebook’s massive data release ahead of the election that put over 50 million user profiles into the hands of political data firm Cambridge Analytica, government leaders and citizens alike are finally recognizing Facebook’s irresponsibility and unresponsiveness to the information it gathers as well as its impact in the political sphere.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is currently under fire from U.S. and European leaders, who are seeking an explanation as to how Cambridge Analytica acquired users’ personal information to craft political messages for its candidates.
But time and time again, the company constantly diverts responsibility, either to users or third-party groups engaging on the platform. When Facebook was accused of allowing the spread of fake news, it attempted to fix its news feed set-up by curating more personal posts and limiting content from companies and brands.
This time, Facebook has offered another excuse. In an official Facebook blog post, Vice President Paul Grewal wrote that “the claim that this is a data breach is completely false.”
The New York Times reported Cambridge Analytica had worked with a Cambridge University psychology professor to create an app that would gather user data on Facebook. Facebook claims that “people knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked” through Cambridge Analytica’s data retrieval method.
Although Facebook has said this was not a technical data breach, the ethical questions around the company allowing such activity to occur under its watch remain unanswered. The users who “knowingly” submitted their information through the app were not aware of the purpose behind this data collection, nor did they realize the extent to which their information would be analyzed for political gain.
A New York Times opinion piece called Facebook a “surveillance machine” based on the vast amount of data it collects and consequently sells to advertisers. It’s important to remember that Facebook is not just a technology company: It’s a data-driven goldmine, one that harvests and holds on to the data of 2 billion people.
Facebook has constantly tried to hide behind the facade of a social platform, but its revenue stream reveals otherwise. According to Adweek, Facebook’s biggest revenue channel is advertising.
With the advent of social media, advertisers have shifted gears on engagement strategies, working with social platforms and influencers to reach users. Political campaigns and firms have also caught on. And throughout this shift, Facebook has reaped the benefit of having over two billion users worldwide — a massive amount of personal data and browsing history that can be attained and exploited despite the company’s claims that it is closely monitoring the platform.
If we take a look back at Facebook’s recent history, we can see multiple instances of its irresponsibility with users’ personal information. In 2011, the company settled with the Federal Trade Commission for failing to keep various privacy promises to users, such as allowing third-party apps to access user data beyond what was needed to operate.
A 2016 ProPublica investigation revealed how Facebook allows advertisers to exclude users by race. Although Facebook responded with further efforts to fix its advertising portal, ProPublica found in 2017 that advertisers were still able to target ads excluding users by religion, family status, national origin, sex, race and more.
These are just a few of examples, and the revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s shady data retrieval will be another one in the books for Facebook, which has only offered marginal policy changes to address the flaws of its platform.
The scope and access of a large online platform to individuals’ personal information must now be recognized by policymakers and citizens to ensure the creation of an online environment where personal data is carefully monitored and protected to prevent misuse from advertisers and political interest groups.
If Facebook continually fails to craft viable technological solutions to protect user information, policymakers need to take action to hold these companies accountable for their loopholes that put personal data at risk.
Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and
political science. She is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Tuesday.