4th Anniversary of Cambridge Analytica: Has the Scandal been Overblown?

An excerpt from the Techlash Book

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Cambridge Analytica’s “firestorm”

Prior to this crisis, Mark Zuckerberg’s “personal challenge” for 2018 was to fix important issues such as “protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation-states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.” He stated that “If we’re successful this year, then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.”

Then came the exposé claiming that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, improperly obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users. The news was published as an interview with Christopher Wylie, a data consultant for Cambridge Analytica, whom Carole Cadwalladr from The Guardian had spent a year persuading to become a whistle-blower. The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian) ran the interview in consortium with the New York Times (where Cadwalladr’s byline appeared along with Matthew Rosenberg’s and Nicholas Confessore’s) and the British television station Channel 4, to garner international attention.

Cambridge Analytica scandal as a watershed moment

The outrage and news circle, in this case, were longer, since the “Cambridge Analytica scandal seems to have unlocked even larger worries about the influence of social media, the power of Silicon Valley, and the cavalier approach many tech companies have taken toward user privacy.”

A BuzzFeed News headline stated that “Facebook has had countless privacy scandals. But this one is different.” The tech reporter, Charlie Warzel, explained:

“It’s a moment that forces us, collectively, to step back and think about what we sacrificed for a more convenient and connected world. And on an Internet that feels increasingly toxic, it’s hard to look at the trade-offs we’ve made and feel like we’re getting a fair deal …. You can see this reckoning already begin to play out across the media as the focus shifts from Cambridge Analytica’s deeds to more general concerns about privacy and the degree to which our personal lives are cataloged so that we can be targeted by anyone with a dollar (or ruble) to spend online.”

On the scandal’s broader meaning and its effect on the Techlash, he wrote:

“The scandal feels like a watershed moment no matter how effective Cambridge Analytica may have been. Not only has the outrage endured more than a full week of news cycles, but it seems now as if in it, the Big Tech backlash has reached a critical mass, sparking an unprecedented crisis. It’s caught the eye of lawmakers across the world.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal’s damage was not only legal and political — Facebook faced lawsuits and new inquiries by regulators in Brussels, London, and Washington — but also reputational: “Silicon Valley’s public image had survived the Snowden revelations. But tech companies, already implicated in the spread of ‘fake news’ and Russian interference in the 2016 election, were no longer the good guys.

Paul Ford, in a Bloomberg Businessweek article, described the depth of the change in perceiving the tech companies:

“Over and over in the last 20 years, we’ve watched low-cost or free Internet communications platforms spring from the good intentions or social curiosity of tech folk. We’ve watched as these platforms expanded in power and significance, selling their influence to advertisers. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google — they grew so fast. One day they’re a lovable new way to see kid pix; next thing you know, they’re reconfiguring democracy, governance, and business.”

When I asked the research interviewees about the iconic story which shaped the Techlash, many mentioned this specific scandal. “Cambridge Analytica certainly was a big shift,” asserted Kashmir Hill from the New York Times.[1]

Jonathan Weber from Reuters News explained why this story was a watershed. “It highlighted the role that Facebook played in the election of Trump and the way that people’s data was being collected without their realizing it.” In the wake of those revelations, “people were like, ‘Holy shit.’”[2]

In retrospect, was it overblown?

It is important to note that Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through duplicitous means, but similar data sets are widely and legally available; microtargeting is commonplace on nearly all political campaigns. Also, some misinformation experts argue that the leak of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign aided Trump more than the targeted Facebook ads.

In retrospect, some of the tech experts who interviewed for this book asserted that the Cambridge Analytica scandal might have been overblown. As in reality, it didn’t have that much of an effect, especially not as much as the company was marketing itself to have.

“I may have a slightly counterintuitive position on Cambridge Analytica,” said a leading tech editor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think that that was an important story. But it is not clear to me that they played a role in influencing people’s decisions about the election. There was a lot of coverage that either misunderstood or over-exaggerated the impact that they had.” The tech editor also wondered, “if some of the focus on Facebook become a little imbalanced, and that we discounted the fact that Fox News, which has been around longer than Facebook, has had a huge impact on people’s opinions.”[3]

Scott Thurm shared that he read the profile of Brad Parscale at the New Yorker (“The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut” by Andrew Marantz), which he found as revealing about Facebook as it was about Parscale. “One of the things I liked about that story is that it put Cambridge in a better perspective,” said Scott. “By the standards of everything else that was going on, it really wasn’t that big a deal. But it became that touchpoint, the thing that people rallied around.”[4]

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal connected Cambridge Analytica to the need to find a clear villain. “The story that I think most defines the Techlash for me, in both good and its accesses, is Cambridge Analytica,” he said. “It is a significant thing that happened clearly. I am glad it came out. It is important that people know. But also, relevant to what Facebook does every single day, is a fairly small story.” The explanation is that “Even in the Techlash, they still wanted it to be about a select number of villains, there were these bad guys who stole something, and Cambridge Analytica gave people that,” said Alexis. “But, the real issues, investing in rewiring our entire society through a handful of companies, are so much bigger than that and have far fewer oblivious villains. Whereas Cambridge Analytica sounds like an old-school psychological experiment.”[5]

“People were looking for somebody to blame for Trump, and they look to blaming Facebook and then Cambridge Analytica,” said Jeff Jarvis. “Facebook screwed up there, but let’s unpack that Cambridge Analytica was after all — Cambridge University. These days, researchers were yelling at Facebook to share more data. Well, Facebook did share more data, and what happened to them?”

Addressing the scandal, Jeff added:

“Everyone I talk to in the data world mocks Cambridge Analytica and says that it was nothing but a bullshit factory. It didn’t have any magical powers. It didn’t have any influence. It didn’t really do anything. Yet, it has been blamed for the downfall of all democracy.”[6]

[1] Kashmir Hill, in discussion with the author, February 3, 2020.

[2] Jonathan Weber, in discussion with the author, February 20, 2020.

[3] Anonymous tech editor, in discussion with the author, February 2020.

[4] Scott Thurm, in discussion with the author, March 3, 2020.

[5] Alexis Madrigal, in discussion with the author, February 5, 2020.

[6] Jeff Jarvis, in discussion with the author, February 14, 2020.

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Dr. (Ph.D.). Book Author: The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication. Contributor: Techdirt. Former visiting research fellow, USC. Expertise: Tech Journalism.

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Nirit Weiss-Blatt

Dr. (Ph.D.). Book Author: The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication. Contributor: Techdirt. Former visiting research fellow, USC. Expertise: Tech Journalism.