“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then . . . 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?'”
That’s how Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica — the election consulting firm that worked for Donald Trump; the Brexit campaign and dozens of other clients; political parties in Kenya, Mexico and beyond — described the company’s tactics to a “customer” who was, in fact, a reporter for Britain’s Channel 4 News. The “information” in question referred to false information, which the company itself was proposing to create. Perhaps a little sting operation involving some “beautiful” Ukrainian girls? The company could catch it on a secret camera, and get it “into the bloodstream of the Internet.”
Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm
Whether and to what extent this constituted legal wrongdoing or a violation of service terms is still to be ruled on. Facebook says that users “knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked” and that Cambridge Analytica merely used the data beyond its original purpose, and was told to delete it, and has suspended it from its platform. Cambridge Analytica counters that it was misled and got rid of the data as it was instructed. Facebook argues that it did not violate its users’ self-selected privacy settings when it gave away their data, though regulators may argue otherwise.
Cambridge was hired by the Donald Trump campaign in June 2016, as Trump’s push to the general election started to slowly organize. The rationale behind that hire appears to be in large part to secure the support of the wealthy Mercer family, which helped found and fund Cambridge and which, ultimately, did mobilize behind Trump’s candidacy.
There are a few questions that have surrounded Cambridge’s role in Trump’s campaign. For one thing, the firm was employed both by Trump’s campaign and by a pro-Trump independent group called Make America Number 1 PAC. That group was a vehicle for the Mercer family to spend unlimited funds advocating for Trump’s candidacy.
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica crisis keeps growing
It’s been a rough few days for Facebook.
The Menlo Park, California-based company is under siege from lawmakers, regulators, users, shareholders, and even its own employees amid revelations that Cambridge Analytics, a data analytics firm used by the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, secretly harvested personal data from 50 million of its users.
The saga began on Friday evening, when Facebook posted a statement announcing it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and its British parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, from its platform. Facebook said its policies had been violated when Cambridge University scholar Aleksandr Kogan passed the data of millions of users, obtained through a personality test app, to Cambridge and SCL.
A pair of blockbuster reports from the New York Times and the UK’s Observer released Saturday explained the scope of the problem: Cambridge Analytica collected the data not only of the approximately 270,000 users who agreed to take Kogan’s personality quiz but also their friends, thus harvesting information on tens of millions of people without their knowledge or permission.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign also used Cambridge Analytica — according to the Center for Responsive Politics, his campaign paid the firm $5.9 million during the 2016 election. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and Super PACs supporting him paid the firm millions of dollars as well.
The reports about Facebook have sparked widespread backlash, and the company’s efforts to minimize the situation have fallen short. Facebook has tried to explain that what happened technically doesn’t count as a “data breach” and has hired a digital forensics firm to audit Cambridge Analytica. But it’s sort of too little, too late.
The fallout hit hard and fast over the weekend as the Times and Observer stories broke. The company has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market cap, and the hashtag #DeleteFacebook is percolating on Twitter. There are reports that the company’s chief security officer is headed for the exit. And as lawmakers in the US and Europe call for Facebook to shape up and explain what happened, it appears the tech giant’s troubles are far from over.