What I’d like to know is why any of us are on Facebook anymore.
I’d also like to know when we are going to stop treating Mark Zuckerberg like some benevolent potentate in the magical land of Tech, and start holding him responsible for what he is, and what he has done to our democracy.
This weekend the New York Times revealed that Cambridge Analytica, the data science firm funded by right-wing ideologue Robert Mercer and hired by the Trump campaign to run social media campaigns and analysis in 2016, snookered Facebook into handing over the private information of 50 million users.
“The firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history,” wrote the Times, God bless those investigative reporters every one. “The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.”
How’d they do it? Per the Times: “Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.”
Said researcher is — wait for it — a Russian-American!!
And how did we learn all this? Did Facebook conduct an internal inquiry into how the platform may have been inappropriately or illegally used to influence the 2016 election? Since we already know that it was?
Haha: I’m joking, of course.
The Times said Facebook “downplayed the scope of the leak” as its reporters pressed for answers. And when the social media giant actually checked — suddenly they were really alarmed! (There are also lots of other questions: Why would Facebook release this to an academic anyway? Wouldn’t an academic who could pay for that kind of scaled information raise alarm bells?)
“This was a scam — and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement to the Times, adding that they’d suspended both Cambridge Analytica and the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan.
In the words of Russian spyspeak, Zuckerberg now counts — like our president — as a “useful idiot.” He has contributed, and apparently continues to contribute, to the corruption of our democratic process. The Times reports that Cambridge Analytica still has “most or all” of the data.
Meanwhile, Facebook rakes in billions of dollars in profit each quarter — $7.3 billion in the last quarter of 2017 — while sucking advertising dollars away from digital media companies that do actual journalism, like Vox and Mic and Buzzfeed.
Do I sound furious? I am.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind anybody that when the government asked Facebook to check on Russian-backed ads during the presidential election, Zuckerberg at first said he didn’t think it was a thing. The notion that fake news on Facebook influenced the election is “a pretty crazy idea,” he said in November 2016. (No, really: Watch the video.)
Then Facebook checked and found that hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, probably run from Russia, spent about $100,000 on ads about divisive issues such as gun control and race relations during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. By now we’ve all seen those ads trotted out in Congressional hearing rooms.
Once again we must thank the Fourth Estate, in this case the New York Times, for digging out information that Facebook would rather not have shared.
Mark Zuckerberg, the Times has exposed you for your naivete and cowardice. We, your users, need to take action — like getting off your platform. Your actions are tepid, late and lacking in credibility.
Sheryl Sandberg, you know better, what are you doing to fix this?
I’m not a fan of government regulation in general, but we need it here, and now comes word of a U.S. Attorney General investigation. That’s a start. We need our legislators to step in and regulate Facebook. Stick their nose in. Pass rules. Make Facebook accountable, because for the moment, it’s just a wild oligopoly driven by mad growth and madder profit.
Public accountablity becomes harder when our government is paralyzed, divided and utterly broken. And it is that way — in part because of the divisions that foreign actors sowed on Facebook during our election.
Our democracy is precious. It is strong, but it has fault lines that Russia has clearly exploited. The geniuses of Silicon Valley, changing everything in our world, need to get a lot more transparent, a lot more thoughtful and a lot more accountable for what they have wrought.
Until they do, I recommend we give Facebook a wide berth.