It’s been nearly a week since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, following an undercover Channel 4 documentary which revealed that more than 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested without users’ consent, for political ends. The story has dominated the news media, and shaken Facebook’s share price, which dropped by nearly 10% last week, wiping US$45bn off its market value.
But what’s really interesting to me is that the public fury hasn’t really been in reaction to any new news.
Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix, has been grandstanding over the firm’s role in influencing the US election since Trump took office, 14 months ago. And the fact that Facebook is collecting personal data to allow organisations, brands and governments to target its users has never been a secret, and has in fact been common knowledge for years.
The new news in this story is that Cambridge Analytica obtained their data nefariously. However, the public outrage is rooted in three entirely separate phenomena: the building backlash against tech companies, the rage against Trump-related anything, and the public finally waking up to the fact that Facebook is monetising data; that we have become their product.
I’ve literally seen mainstream news organisations talking as if they are revealing a new and penetrating insight about how Facebook has allowed organisations to use data based on account profiles, interests and behaviour, including likes and comments. AKA, Facebook’s openly-stated business model.
The truth is we have unwittingly entered into a codependent relationship with Facebook, whereby they provide an amazing platform on which we can converse with friends and family, share videos and photos, and even set up businesses, all for “free”, in exchange for data, which it then monetises. In many instances, this data-rich relationship has resulted in a massive positive - a highly personalised and relevant user experience. However, ‘which data’ and ‘in what way it would be used’ were insufficiently clarified upfront, and seeing how our data can be subversively weaponised has made people sit up and reconsider whether they are willing to continue this relationship.
How Facebook responds now is likely to determine whether it will weather this perfect storm - or if this is the onset of the demise of arguably the most powerful company in the world.
Thus far, Facebook has not handled the situation well, with many people outraged that it took Mark Zuckerberg five days to even make a public statement. This vacuum has given rise to the #DeleteFacebook movement, which has now been joined by some high profile voices including Elon Musk, who has deleted the Facebook accounts of both SpaceX and Tesla.
I feel sorry for Facebook. They have taken a huge amount of flak for wrongdoings that were largely the actions of Cambridge Analytica. And it’s clear that when Zuck set up Facebook in his dorm room in 2003, he had no idea that Facebook would be as prolific or powerful as it is today, nor that he would be involved in global political and cultural challenges. New York Times columnist Kevin Roose, speaking on that paper’s The Daily podcast, likened Facebook’s challenge to one of those cartoons where men are building tracks for a train as it’s hurtling along behind them. Tough gig.
And on Thursday, when Mark Zuckerberg did finally emerge to address the market, he did issue something of an apology for their role in allowing the “breach of trust”, and states they will “make sure this doesn’t happen again”.
However, with great power comes great responsibility, and Facebook has simply not assumed sufficient responsibility. Its stance has run something like ‘we’re just a platform, we don’t have editorial control over the content that appears’, and ‘we didn’t know how people might use the live video functionality’, or ‘we asked them to delete the data and they said they did’. It’s inadequate.
If Facebook doesn’t respond far more robustly, with significantly increased investment in governance, and a significantly enhanced focus on ethics, users will vote with their fingers. And/or, global governments will need to step in to regulate.
And even if they successfully tighten the security gates moving forward, it will be almost impossible to account for the data mismanagement that has come before.
For now, the most likely scenario is that this crisis will pass… only to re-emerge when someone in Hollywood makes a sensational movie about it, complete with British villain. Perhaps he could be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
We are Social MD Suzie Shaw