Observations of an ex pat: Facebook faces the music

Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

It also has an unstated mission: To make a shedload of money.

It is incredibly successful at both.

There are 2.2 billion active Facebook users.  Mark Zuckerberg is worth $67.7 billion.

But the rest of society is discovering that there is a price to be paid in invasion of privacy and erosion of political liberties.

The problem is that the posted holiday snaps, political opinions and declarations of love don’t belong to you.  They belong to Facebook who run the data through clever algorithms  to work out just what you are likely to want to buy. They sell that analysis to advertisers who use the information to micro-target consumers on Facebook.

No longer do advertisers have to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a page in a glossy magazine to reach 200,000 users of which possibly only two percent will be interested in their product. They now pay a fraction of the old price to reach 200,000 Facebook users whose information  that they entered on their  Facebook page reveals them as a prime target.

What is wrong with that? Advertisers reach a highly targeted international market which opens the possibility of global trade  while consumers are offered the opportunity to buy the sort of goods and services they want at the best possible price.

That must be a good thing. Yes it is. Unfortunately it does not stop there.

Enter Cambridge academic Professor Aleksandr Koga and Cambridge-based digital analytical firm Cambridge Analytica. Dr Koga, a psychology professor who invented an app which extracted information on 250,000 Facebook users AND all of their connections—a total of 50,000,000 Facebook users. He said he wanted the information to produce psychological profiles.

It is unclear if Dr Koga approached Cambridge Analytica or vice versa. But somehow they came together and Dr Koga was paid to allow Cambridge Analytica to use his app to “mine” profile data on Facebook users.  This data was then used for political purposes to plant fake news, misinformation, disinformation and false information through the Facebook network which was in turn picked up by other social media sites such as twitter and instagram and finally the mainstream news.

Cambridge Analytica’s activities are alleged to have had a major impact on the US presidential election, successive  Kenyan presidential elections and the Brexit vote.

Mark Turnbull, managing director of the company’s political arm, boasted that as far was Kenya was concerned, his company “staged the whole thing.” Taped by a hidden television news camera, he said: “We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research and analysis messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing.”

As for Brexit, it depends on whom you spoke to and when. Before the latest furore erupted, both the Leave EU campaign and Cambridge Analytica were eager to give full credit to the Cambridge company.  Aaron Banks  praised the company in his book on the Brexit campaign. But lately both sides have denied that any work was done and that any money changed hands. The issue is being investigated by Parliament.

There is no doubt about the impact of Cambridge Analytica on the 2016 US presidential elections. CEO Alexander Nix made it clear to the same hidden camera that his company takes full credit for winning three key marginal states for Donald Trump. The president is not saying much at the moment but former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made no secret of the contribution of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg claims that he was unaware of the activities of Cambridge Analytica. The company say this is rubbish.  The result is that Zuckerberg is being called to give an account of himself and his company to Congress, the British House of Commons and the European Parliament.

The fact is that Facebook is being used increasingly to pursue political aims, and that because of its wide ranging all-inclusive nature it has become a platform not only for mainstream political debate but also for messages of hate and division.

Facebook says it wants to “build community and bring the world closer together.” It is in danger of doing the opposite.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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10 Comments

  • Sue Sutherland 23rd Mar '18 - 1:14pm

    I remember seeing a cartoon from Punch magazine about the invention of the atom bomb. The caption was ‘Baby play with nice ball’ and indeed there was the baby playing with a bomb. Unfortunately the invention of Facebook now looks similar. Sometimes we Liberals forget that people have unpleasant and sometimes evil motives for the way they behave. This leads us to think that lack of regulation is a good thing in itself but the Facebook debacle has shown us that it isn’t.
    I have M.E and don’t get out much and recently moved to a different part of the country nearer my family but away from long standing friends. Facebook has enabled me to keep in touch with some of them and to make new friends without going out, so for me it’s invaluable in maintaining my sanity. However, with these wonderful benefits comes the inevitable misuse. Regulation to protect against this misuse has to be established even though the inventors of the new technology thought they were giving us a benefit that could operate untrammelled by this kind of rule. It’s a lesson for Facebook and for our party.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Mar '18 - 9:20pm

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/opinion/facebook-cambridge-analytica.html – highlighted on security guru Bruce Schneier’s blog

  • All technology goes through phases of perception – from “brilliant” to “terrible” to “yes, actually it is both good and bad – it depends what use it is put to but mainly good.”

    What if I told you I had told you that I had invented a technology that killed over 1 million people a year and facilitated massive crime. You would want it banned instantly.

    That technology is the car. Of course it saves many more lives – rushing people to hospital, doctors to patients and so on.

    A sense of perspective is needed over Facebook. May be some very light touch regulation. But a massive recognition that the “old” media always hate new media and politicians can’t see something move without wanting to hobble it.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Mar '18 - 8:02am

    @Michael 1
    “A sense of perspective is needed over Facebook. May be some very light touch regulation.”

    You mean like the ‘light touch regulation’ that the banks always prefer…?

  • @Nonconformistradical

    It depends what you are “regulating” and the original article and media comment mixes up many different issues.

    This Washington Post article puts some of the issues into context https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/facebook-is-americas-scapegoat-du-jour/2018/03/22/58699078-2dff-11e8-b0b0-f706877db618_story.html

  • Christopher Curtis 24th Mar '18 - 2:42pm

    As far as I can see, the data collected was within the permissions given by Facebook users at the time. There’s nothing yet to suggest anyone’s data was “hacked” or stolen. It’s not even new to try to target messaging (whether advertising or political) very precisely.
    What worries me much more than targeting itself is what the micro-targeting was used to deliver. The examples in the press from the Trump campaign delivered absolutely “fake news” to many targets.
    It’s the loss of any sense that people have to at least try to be truthful, and there should be severe consequences if they are not, that is so dangerous. Good debate and good decisions are based on the common search for a set of agreed facts and probabilities, with opinions clearly separated from them.
    Once lies are allowed to prosper, it is very difficult to counter them. Once the debate itself has been thrown into confusion, so no-one can see clearly what is true, probable, unlikely or false, it all becomes a matter of shouting slogans. Sadly, there is strong evidence of this confusion being deliberately created to advance agendas that would never be progressed under normal democratic circumstances.
    For me, the issue is not about regulating Facebook or whatever replaces it but about having effective ways of preventing and correcting the spreading of false information: whether error or lie and to do this at least as fast as the information spreads.

  • @Christopher Curtis

    The key point is that “fake news” and “filter bubbles” have always existed – it is what readers of the Daily Mail, Express, Daily Telegraph, the Times and yes the Guardian, the Mirror, the FT have always been subject to. Even “impartial sources” such as the BBC. One of the innovations of Channel 4 when it started was to have more diversity of reporting such as Diverse Reports.

    The internet and facebook makes it far easier to search out “facts” and viewpoints. i believe and hope that the best way forward for humankind and democracy is freedom of expression. There is one thing that is certain – that in my views and what i perceive as “facts” – i am wrong, you are wrong, the prevailing “conventional” wisdom is wrong. Hopefully as individuals we get nearer to the truth and especially as the human race.

    Remember that the Clinton campaign spent more than the Trump campaign – and a vast amount of money – and it was doing all the things that the Trump campaign and his allies are accused of. Either they spent $1 billion really badly in which case they deserve to have lost or money can’t buy you an election.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Mar '18 - 4:45pm

    @Christopher Curtis
    “As far as I can see, the data collected was within the permissions given by Facebook users at the time. There’s nothing yet to suggest anyone’s data was “hacked” or stolen.”

    That might possibly be so for the first tier of Facebook users (although I’m given to understand that Facebook has changed its terms from time to time) but if data about their friends was collected then those friends would not necessarily have had any idea their data was being used in this way would they?

  • Christopher Curtis 24th Mar '18 - 10:34pm

    @Michael 1 said: “The internet and facebook makes it far easier to search out “facts” and viewpoints. i believe and hope that the best way forward for humankind and democracy is freedom of expression. There is one thing that is certain – that in my views and what i perceive as “facts” – i am wrong, you are wrong, the prevailing “conventional” wisdom is wrong. Hopefully as individuals we get nearer to the truth and especially as the human race.”

    This illustrates perfectly the problem. Of course truth is hard-won and not always obvious, and it certainly is not the same as what I happen to believe right now, but freedom of expression is not the answer if that means that people are not held accountable for the accuracy and reliability of what they express as factual. There are alternative opinions and viewpoints and I believe passionately in our freedom to express what we believe, but there really are no such things as “alternative facts”.
    To give one hackneyed example, how much money the UK government directly pays into the EU each year, and the UK receives directly from the EU, is accounted and published carefully. There could be a reasonable discussion about what to include or exclude from the total and why, but the overall picture is basically unarguable. Not only was it ridiculous for senior politicians to be making up their own figures to suit their arguments, it (deliberately in my view) undermined the possibility of honest debate about whether the costs and benefits (and even the principle of paying and receiving) were “worth it”.

  • @Christopher Curtis

    There are facts. But you quickly move in to the realm of interpretation. People can validly argue about the definition of “average” – do you mean median or mean – either can be a wild distortion of reality. is poverty going up or down if absolute poverty goes down but relative poverty goes up? There are thousands of such examples.

    While i disagreed with the Leave campaign – the statement that we “send the EU £350 million a week” is true. You then get into arguments over what we get back, the rebate etc. And the Leave side said that it was valid to exclude the amount we get back because it was not under the UK’s direct control

    it is possible to present an argument or news story where each of the individual facts are true but the overall impression is a massive distortion.

    We all – and i mean all – cut through this – with our own world point of view, experience and emotion. it is instructive to read through a newspaper article and question each of the “facts” presented – especially if they accord with your own viewpoint – and it is quite difficult to do!

    Overall – Facebook and the internet i believe does aid this process – in allowing the quicker and much, much easier dissemination of different viewpoints. Arguably it allowed Corbyn to fight back against the Daily Mail etc. in a way that would not have been open to him a few years ago.

    People have always stayed in their “filter bubble” and world of alternative facts – pub conversations and within friends and families – “Did you hear that….” And clearly Facebook and the internet facilitate this process but they also help challenge it.

    As it happens freedom of expression is the only answer – unless you establish a “Ministry of Truth” – and i don’t quite think that will work!

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