Pissing in the Wind: A Facebook Story

This is what happens when Zuckerberg and his cronies get caught with their pants around their knees.

With the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal gripping the digital nation and getting its internet denizens all riled up again about privacy infringement, unlawful use of personal data and all that Orwellian jazz, a big question is on the forefront of everyone’s minds: can we trust Facebook with our personal data?

The short answer is: no. The long answer is also no, but how exactly did the internet world – including myself – reach this ridiculously obvious conclusion? According to a Reuters poll released on Mar. 25, 2018, fewer than half of Americans trust Facebook to obey U.S. privacy laws. In fact, fewer Americans trust Facebook than any other major technology conglomerate, including Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and even Yahoo (yes, Yahoo still counts as a major tech conglomerate).

It’s gotten so bad that only a few weeks ago the prodigal son Elon Musk deleted the Facebook pages for Tesla and SpaceX on a whim just because some Twitter dude asked him to. Then there are those who never trusted Facebook from the beginning, as they very well shouldn’t have. Take an old high school chum of mine for example, Tian Zhang: “They're a company, and companies serve to make profits for their owners. Now, if the main product they sell is free for the users, then the real product(s), in my opinion, are the users themselves.”

The tyranny of big brother

He’s not wrong – with the exposition of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become clearer than ever before that Facebook is indeed treating users (make that user profiles – en masse) as products in a twisted ploy to warp and toy with the minds of the people But where exactly can we pinpoint the beginning of Facebook’s long fall from grace? Well, the rumours of big wigs pulling one too many strings were first stirred up in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when we saw how blatantly fake stories could spread faster and more persuasively than true ones – with Kremlin-linked groups waging a highly effective misinformation campaign on the platform and sometimes even illegally buying advertisements on Facebook.

A year later, Chamath Palihaptiya, the former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, stepped forward to express regret for his part in building tools that destroy “the social fabric of how society works,” claiming that “it is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

The spark that turned the Facebook trust tinderbox into a bonfire was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which seemingly erupted out of nowhere on March 17 when the New York Times and the Guardian both revealed that consultants for U.S. president Donald Trump exploited the Facebook data of millions of users – a whopping 50 million, to be exact.

 It’s 1984 all over again. Photo courtesy of Open Culture.

It’s 1984 all over again. Photo courtesy of Open Culture.

A tool of psychological warfare

Here’s the abbreviated rundown of the scandal: Steve Bannon, Trump’s ex-right-hand man, created the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica after approaching a two conservative megadonors for funding. The newly created firm then reached out to researcher Aleksandr (not a typo) Kogan, a Russian American who worked at the University of Cambridge. Upon the firm’s behest – and a few truckload of greenbacks, I’m assuming – Kogan built a personality quiz that launched on Facebook and not only collected data from 270,000 quiz takers but exposed a loophole in Facebook’s API that allowed them to extract the data of all their Facebook friends as well.

After harvesting all this user information – which it obtained in total violation of Facebook’s privacy rules – Cambridge Analytica and Steve Bannon used it to test and effectively target different methods of political advertising at said users, giving the Donald Trump campaign an unfair advantage in targeting voters via social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This is a hugely problematic – and in some ways, outright illegitimate – for three main reasons. First off, Cambridge Analytica sold the data collected using Kogan’s personality quiz, even though Facebook prohibited the sale of such data collected using methods like Kogan’s. Secondly, Cambridge Analytica never told any of the users taking Kogan’s quiz that they were to be psychographically profiled, their information harvested to aid in the construction of a tool of psychological warfare that would be ultimately used to subvert democracy. Thirdly, and most importantly, Facebook knew their users’ data was being harvested, but never disclosed this knowledge to them – a major breach of trust and a possible violation of many privacy infringement (and other) laws around the world.

Mark the bald-faced liar

“We have a responsibility to protect your data,” Mark Zuckerberg quipped memorably in a recent interview with CNN after news of the scandal broke. “If we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.” But it’s no longer about whether Facebook deserves to serve us; it’s about whether the public still wants to be served by Facebook. At the end of the day, Facebook allowed a third-party developer to construct an application for the sole purpose of collecting personal data, and this developer was able to work around Facebook’s digital structure to surreptitiously extract the personal information of millions of Facebook users – ordinary people like you, me and your grandma.

Mark’s personal net worth has declined by about five billion dollars since the scandal broke, and Facebook’s stock price has been the victim (perpetrator, or both?) of a similar downward trajectory. Public opinion of Facebook is at an all-time low, and it’ll take more to turn the ship around than a ginger thief who’s pathetically attempting to save face with a few half-baked press apologies – cause right now he’s just blindly pissing in the wind, and it isn’t going over so well with the rest of the world.