business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

We’ve had a number of stories on MNB during the past week or two about Facebook’s current problems - it is under fire for having allowed Cambridge Analytica, a firm connected to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, access to the personal data of as many as 87 million of its users. Indeed, as the New York Times reported yesterday, Facebook has conceded “a vulnerability in its search and account recovery functions that it said could have exposed ‘most’ of its 2 billion users to having their public profile information harvested.”

I’ve gotten a number of emails about this subject, but yesterday I got several that had similar perspectives:

There are a plethora of articles describing how Facebook data was mined and used for President Obama in 2012. A Google search of Obama Campaign Analytics yields hundreds of articles. I wonder why it is such a huge issue now after Trump won the 2016 campaign using Cambridge Analytica?


I really don’t quite get the outrage on all of this. I know that whatever I post on Facebook can/will be published somewhere. My political views, my likes, my dislikes...all of it are public. Isn’t that Facebook’s , and for that matter Amazon and Google’s, business model. They facilitate our social media’s connections, for free, we give them our data as payment. What they do with that data is their privilege as they incur the expense to bring us the technology. The media attacks on one of their own fascinate me, it’s all about Donald Trump. The Obama campaign harvested data from Facebook, for free yet not a peep about how horrible Facebook is for giving them data. Such hypocrisy.

And another:

In regards to Cambridge Analytica, why is this a story that gets wrapped around the Trump campaign? What about the Obama campaign manager admitting they did the same thing? I rarely agree with the majority of either side, but some fair analysis would be a breath of fresh air. Zuckerberg admits that companies had their way with its data, yet Russia and Trump are getting the coverage. Clearly, the media doesn't care that people are tired of hearing Trump is connected to everything bad, because they have an agenda, and they are sticking to it. Get rid of the agenda, and report the news unbiased. The lack of good dialogue between people in this country is disturbing.

I thought this was a legitimate point. We all knew that the Obama presidential campaigns were highly advanced in their ability to access social media and mine data about users in a way that drove public opinion and voters to the polls.

So what was the difference?

I turned to Politifact, which I find to be a usually reliable arbiter of fact and fiction when it comes to such things. (I know that some folks don’t trust Politifact, believing that it is simply a tool of the mainstream media. I don’t think it is perfect, but I find it to be generally accurate … not because it reinforces my preconceptions, but because it often makes persuasive arguments that I hadn’t considered.)

Here’s one thing that Politifact writes:

“Under the way Facebook allowed its apps to operate between 2010 and 2015, Obama’s 2012 re-election app and the survey app used by Cambridge Analytica had access not only to their users’ profiles but their friends’ list and their biographical information. When the user approved it, these apps could access details such as users’ and their friends’ tags, likes and demographics.

“Over a million people downloaded the Obama for America app. Around 300,000 people downloaded the personality survey app that ended up sending their data to Cambridge Analytica. The number of users’ data the firm reportedly gained access to (50 million) is much higher because it includes the users’ friends. The number of user data, it follows, was much higher for the Obama campaign, too.”

So in that way, they were much the same.

But, Politifact writes, there also was some differences:

“The Obama campaign created a Facebook app for supporters to donate, learn of voting requirements, and find nearby houses to canvass. The app asked users’ permission to scan their photos, friends lists, and news feeds. Most users complied. The people signing up knew the data they were handing over would be used to support a political campaign. Their friends, however, did not.

“The people who downloaded the app used by Cambridge Analytica did not know their data would be used to aid any political campaigns. The app was billed as a personality quiz that would be used by Cambridge University researchers.” The data was then sold to various campaigns (not just Trump’s.)

The Politifact concluding assessment:

“The Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica both gained access to huge amounts of information about Facebook users and their friends, and in neither case did the friends of app users consent. But in Obama’s case, direct users knew they were handing over their data to a political campaign. In the Cambridge Analytica case, users only knew were taking a personality quiz for academic purposes.

“The Obama campaign used the data to have their supporters contact their most persuadable friends. Cambridge Analytica targeted users and their friends directly with digital ads.”

In all fairness, I think that despite the differences, the people who say “but Obama did it, too” have a legitimate point. Frankly, I think the whole business about being able to target not just users, but their networks of friends, is creepy. This probably is one of the areas in which lawmakers will push for some regulation … at the very least, they’ll want greater transparency about how data is being used. And I think there ought to be greater transparency about who is accessing the data - no shell games ought to be allowed.

In all fairness, though, I think we need to also concede the fact that social media has come a long way since the 2008 elections. It is much bigger, much more pervasive, and probably a lot more insidious now than it was then - the last decade has seen accelerated growth, which creates accelerated opportunities for exploitation and abuse.

Perspective in assessment and nuance in analysis are important. There was a time, after all, when doctors said that tobacco was good for you because it relieved stress. Nobody would say that today, because we know more.

The same goes for coverage of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica situation. We know more now that we knew in 2008 and 2012, and so the current story gets more attention. That’s why they call it “news.” But I agree with those who would argue that any nuanced analysis of the situation has to look at the past as well as the present if you want to prevent abuses and protect people’s privacy in the future.

The business lessons for other companies and leaders strike me as crystal clear - they have to change and adjust as more information becomes available, and, bottom line, as Kate McMahon wrote here recently, they have to not just accept responsibility, but embrace their culpability as proof that their businesses have evolved into such consumer-connected entities.

The whole thing is an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: