We've written a series of blogs over the past few months about the ills of social media, from several perspectives. The subject has now hit the front pages following last night's Channel 4 News exposé of Cambridge Analytica's possible misuse of user data procured from Facebook to allegedly influence electoral campaigns in various countries including the US. The company now finds itself at the centre of a scandal over its role in the harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook profiles which also has serious implications for Facebook itself whose share price fell 8% when the story broke.
The story highlights our concerns about who Facebook sell the data they capture (mostly unwittingly) from users to, and how this data is used. It could be debated that when this data is used by advertisers to target specific audiences with products and services they might be interested in, what's the harm? In fact it's arguably a good thing for us as consumers as we're likely to be sent advertising messages from companies that we're probably happy to hear from rather than random campaigns [see http://bd2.com/bd2-blog/archive/unsocial-media-part-3/]. The question of consent is another one however, and the impending GDPR regulations will at least give us, as consumers, the choice of whether we want our details and personal data shared. The fact that Facebook make a lot of money selling the information we gave them is perhaps more of a moot point, but we did consent when we signed up - after all, it was all there in the very fine print in the Ts and Cs that we all read, didn't we?
The Channel 4 story about Cambridge Analytica's use of data, analytics and social media is a very different case however, especially bearing in mind Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into the US election and how the result might have been influenced by digital lobbyists like CA, outside influences such as Russia and any agenda they or CA's clients may have.
Channel 4 basically set up a classic journalist's 'sting' by arranging meetings with Cambridge Analytica and a potential client - a fake Sri Lankan businessman looking to run for election. C4 let the cameras roll while the company's Directors, including chief executive Alexander Nix and MD Mark Turnbull, pitched for the business and outlined their techniques.
There was a certain irony, given that we were watching a sting, that in one exchange Mr Nix proposed this as a way of discrediting any opposition: “We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.” Which is exactly what Channel 4 were doing. Then he said they could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”, adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well”. I guess it may that such devious tactics were common place in politics before the digital era, after all you wouldn't put anything past politicians, but social media provides a whole new way to exploit them.
Mark Turnbull, the managing director of CA Political Global, described how, having obtained damaging material on opponents, Cambridge Analytica can discreetly push it onto social media and the internet: “… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.” Nix then advised on how to put distance between the stories and the source: “…Many of our clients don’t want to be seen to be working with a foreign company… so often we set up, if we are working then we can set up fake IDs and websites, we can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists, there’s so many options we can look at. I have lots of experience in this.”
In the meetings, Nix and Turbull claimed that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company had worked in more than two hundred elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina. Trump's election in the US wasn't mentioned but there is a further film tonight which is focused on this, and CA's role in it, which will be fascinating as they're trying to plead their innocence despite the, at best shadowy at worst scandalous, tactics they clearly employ including entrapping politicians, using honey traps and running fake news campaigns..
It will also be fascinating to see how Facebook responds - Facebook staff were apparently at CA's offices yesterday evening no doubt trying to sort the situation out, until they withdrew when informed that The information Commissioner was seeking a court warrant to enter CA's London headquarters: “Cambridge Analytica has not responded to the commissioner by the deadline provided; therefore, the information commissioner is seeking a warrant to obtain information and access to systems and evidence related to her investigation.”