The worst week in Facebook’s history showed no signs of letting up this weekend, with fresh accusations in the Observer of an executive-level cover-up of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting. The crux of the allegations, described by the newspaper as “explosive”, is that one Facebook board member (at least) was aware of the true and ongoing purpose of the contentious data harvesting almost two-years before the company claimed to have learned the facts from the press.
Separately, on Friday the academic behind the scheme, Aleksandr Kogan, sued the social media giant for defamation, for faking ignorance and for using him as a scapegoat when they were aware of events all along – claims that will be boosted by the fresh allegations. According to NBC News, Kogan “had been waiting on investigations by the Department of Justice, the Security and Exchange Commission and the Federal Election Commission of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to wrap up before filing, but the statute of limitations ‘forced our hand’.”
In the last week, Facebook has suffered its largest technical outage, endured revelations of a grand jury investigation in New York into the trading of should-be private user data with other technology companies, witnessed the tragic right-wing shooting in New Zealand live-streamed on its network, overseen the departures of chief product officer Chris Cox and head of WhatsApp Chris Daniels and caused a major own-goal by removing presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ads after she announced a proposal to break up the company.
Some week, even for Facebook. And there’s still the likelihood of that multi-billion-dollar FTC fine to come. As I wrote on Thursday, the super-outage coinciding with headlines of a New York grand jury investigation is an unfortunate coincidence, but an apt one. The omens for regulation of social media’s apparent license to roam freely around the world and across billions of users are now there for all to see.
The dominos begin falling
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, “the story of how whistleblower Christopher Wylie built media mogul Steve Bannon’s ‘psychological warfare tool’ by harvesting millions of people’s Facebook profiles”, marked a sea change for Facebook’s image. This weekend is the 12-month anniversary of that news, and it’s a year that seemingly keeps getting worse and from which Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg can’t find any respite.
Facebook has consistently blamed Aleksandr Kogan for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, admitting their own culpability for lapse governance but not for knowing what was actually taking place. The academic used Facebook’s third-party data-sharing tools to invite 300,000 users to play games, which in turn opened up access to their 87 million friends. That is the data at the heart of the scandal. Data that was mined, allegedly with overseas (read Russian) interference to help shape electoral intentions in various campaigns, most notably Trump and Brexit.
Commenting on Aleksandr Kogan’s suit, his lawyer Steve Cohen said that “Alex did not lie, Alex was not a fraud, Alex did not deceive them, this was not a scam. Facebook knew exactly what this app was doing, or should have known. Facebook desperately needed a scapegoat, and Alex was their scapegoat.”
Kogan claims that Facebook sought to scapegoat him, despite being aware of what was going on throughout. Facebook has maintained that they were led to believe the data being harvested was for academic purposes only, and not for use as a data-driven exercise in political manipulation. When they found out the data had been passed on by Kogan, they sought its deletion and severed the relationship. This was long before the Trump campaign and its ‘Defeat Crooked Hilary’ videos on Facebook.
Responding to the latest news, a Facebook spokesperson dismissed Kogan’s lawsuit as “frivolous” and the academic as a person “who violated our policies and put people’s data at risk.”
But there’s more
On Saturday, the Observer went further than Kogan, claiming that Facebook executives had insight into what Cambridge Analytica was planning in 2016, as the firm began its work for the Trump campaign, facts that will be in evidence “as federal prosecutors investigate claims that the social media giant has covered up the extent of its relationship with the firm.”
The claims center on an alleged meeting between Facebook board member Marc Andreessen and the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, two years before he came forward to the press. “Individuals who attended the meeting with Wylie and Andreessen claim it was set up to learn what Cambridge Analytica was doing with Facebook’s data and how technologists could work to ‘fix’ it.”
A year ago, Zuckerberg claimed in a blog post that “last week we learned from the Guardian, the New York Times and Channel 4 that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data as they had certified.” The latest allegations materially refute that claim.
The Observer article quotes ‘a Silicon Valley technologist’ with knowledge of the meeting saying: “There were people who were very concerned by the reports of what Cambridge Analytica was doing with data, and the meeting was set up to try and find out as much about the exploit as possible in order to figure out possible solutions. That’s why Wylie was invited. They wanted his knowledge. He was asked a lot of questions including about the company’s contacts with Russian entities.”
If the new allegations are true, it is “a hugely embarrassing revelation for Facebook, which was revealed last week to be the subject of a criminal investigation into whether it had covered up the extent of its involvement with Cambridge Analytica.”
The Observer reports that Facebook declined to answer any questions about their claims.
Before the weekend, with news of a grand jury investigation into the casual sale of users’ privacy, it was apparent that the case for regulation if not the break-up of the social media giants is now uncontestable. Stepping back from the headlines, it’s clear that Facebook has some decisions to take over the coming months as to the strategy Zuckerberg and his team are trying to execute in light of the last 12-months. If the primary product you trade is your user base, then the level of trust across that user base is pretty fundamental. And that trust has been stretched to absolute breaking point since this time last year.
Reflecting on the legacy of the Cambridge Analytica story they had broken, but before these latest allegations came to light, the Observer commented: “What the Cambridge Analytica story exposed, by accident, from Facebook’s reaction in the months that followed, is the absolute power of the tech giants. Power and unaccountability that is the foundational platform on which populist authoritarians are rising to power all across the globe. Power and unaccountability that continues unchecked.”
The hard truth is that what was known 12-months ago only scratched the surface of what we have discovered since. There are now multiple ongoing investigations, covering data practices, privacy infringements, the filtering of harmful information posted online and the specifics of Cambridge Analytica. The honeymoon we have all enjoyed with social media is now so badly tarnished it dominates the headlines week after week. And it has become a major political issue around the world, which will undoubtedly find its way into many more campaigns and manifestos that Senator Warren’s alone.
In making her case for the break-up of Big Tech, the Senator said “today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”
It’s hard to argue.