Trust No One
That was the mantra carried by Fox Mulder and repeated by other characters in the television show The X-Files for years. It decried a sense of both purpose and pause in dealings with the government and the military-industrial complex. As Mulder and friends sought the truth, lies and conspiracies beset them at every turn.
Except, nearly two years after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, the news is fraught with stories that, replacing “Aliens” with “Russians,” sound eerily familiar.
Throughout this time, most have been aware of the fact that Facebook played a role in the election. We’ve known for some time that our newsfeeds were targeted with fake news stories and controversial topics designed to stir up polarizing opinions.
What we’re just starting to understand now is how large that role might have been, and how involved other players were in the usage of Facebook and Facebook data.
But this goes well beyond a casual interest in how a particular tool or network might have been used in an election that’s now nearly two years old.
This has to do with manipulation, precedence, privacy and more. And the breaking revelations are having a tremendous impact on Facebook – both the value of the company, and the usage of the platform.
It is certain that these events are going to affect how much individuals use Facebook, and that will affect how well businesses are able to reach and target those individuals. You yourself may be questioning how much you’re willing to use & share with & to the network!
It’s important to note that this article and my research wasn’t about who won or lost that election, or the performance of the President. It’s about how a social network was used to manipulate voters, and what was done. In other words, the politics are really a tertiary concern – our primary focus is on what happened with Facebook and Facebook data, and what was Facebook’s response?
So as I continued to read and dig into this issue, I increasingly realized that this will have a potentially large impact on how businesses use and see success with Facebook.
That was my first reason for putting this article together.
The second reason hearkens back to my opening quote, “Trust No One.” In this age of fake news and deliberate dissemination, who are we to believe? I wanted to try to put together as many facts as I could, and earmark the opinions and heresy as such, and decided that you might benefit from all of this as much as me.
Why can’t we just read the official press releases, news stories and government statements?
Corporations like Facebook may genuinely care about their customers and stakeholders, but at the end of the day, anything they say or admit publicly may be weighed against the corporate good. Not the public’s.
Similarly, when reading statements from government institutions and political representatives, motives must also be questioned.
Even news stories have to be questioned. Every news organization is dependent on readership to survive, whether it’s clicks or television viewers, which makes the creation of “sensationalism” a real temptation.
Not all corporations set out to deceive. Not all government representatives and agencies have hidden agendas. And not all journalists prize readership over truth. But there’s more than enough manure in the water to make it unpalatable.
We have to sift and sanitize in order to understand what’s really going on.
All of that is to say, everything we think we know about Facebook’s involvement is less “fact” than we’d like. Our knowledge is based almost entirely on statements from persons who have a vested interest in persuading others to think a certain way – whether that’s to lessen the involvement and influence on election results, or to explode them.
Understanding that, here’s what we know so far.
The Players & Timeline
One of the reasons stories like this tend to get dismissed is that they’re complicated. There are a lot of people involved which means many new names are about to be thrown at you. Couple that with convoluted timelines, technical details, and references to numbers & statistics, and you have one big, hot mess.
I mentioned earlier, one of my reasons for writing this was actually to sort it all out for myself! I started to clip news stories and make notes. I started to learn more about the men and women involved in the story at different points. And I learned a hell of lot more about statistical analysis and data mining than I ever wanted to know.
As with everything I write, my goal here is to break down every element in a way that is logical and easy to understand. If at any point I wasn’t successful, just hop down to the comments and ask for clarification.
What follows is a brief primer on each individual or company that comes up in the developing threads of this story. Information is compiled from Wikipedia and various sources.
Breitbart – is a far-right American news, opinion and commentary website founded in 2007 by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart.
Steve Bannon – is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News who served as White House Chief Strategist in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump during the first seven months of Trump’s term.
Robert Mercer – is an American computer scientist, hedge fund investor, and major contributor to Breitbart and the campaign of Donald Trump.
SCL Group (formerly Strategic Communication Laboratories) – is a private British behavioral research and strategic communication company. Founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, SCL has participated in over 25 international political and electoral campaigns since 1994.
Cambridge Analytica (CA) – is a privately held company that combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company SCL Group to participate in American politics. CA provided data to the Leave campaign during the Britain’s EU membership referendum, as well as later to the Donald Trump campaign. The company was heavily funded by Mercer, and employed Bannon.
Alexander Nix – was Cambridge Analytica’s CEO (suspended 3/20).
Christopher Wylie – is a political data scientist and former employee of Cambridge Analytica.
Aleksandr Kogan – is a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, as well as an Associate Professor at St. Petersburg University, and the recipient of multiple grants from the Russian government.
Robert Mueller – is the special prosecutor designated by the United States government to investigate the depth and scope of Russian involvement in the U.S. Elections.
The first major revelation to come out of the election aftermath was how Facebook was deliberately used by third parties to manipulate information and perceptions through the use of fake news stories.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed on November 12, 2016, just days after the election, that “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
Ten months later, Zuckerberg said, “Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it.”
And by November 1, 2017, Facebook’s CEO had come around fully to the idea that Russians used the platform maliciously. He said, “I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust. We build these tools to help people connect and bring us closer together. They used them to try to undermine our values. What they did is wrong and we’re not going to stand for it.”
The fact is, according to testimony Facebook presented to congressional committees, “Russia-based operatives published about 80,000 posts on the social network over a two-year period in an effort to sway U.S. politics and that about 126 million Americans may have seen the posts during that time.”
Twitter also confirmed the existence of thousands of accounts linked to Russian operatives.
As a result, Facebook is taking steps to ensure that legitimate stories from trusted sources are prioritized, and that users are able to see and help police fake stories and hoaxes.
The problem is not only that it’s too little, too late – it’s also steps that the U.S. Government wanted to take back in 2011. At the time, legislation was under consideration that would have, for instance, required political ad buys on social media to be labeled and as transparent as those purchased for radio or television.
I’m sure you’ve seen the “This ad was paid for by the People’s Liberation Front” type disclaimers on ads.
Yet Facebook’s lawyers, along with Twitter and Google, put up such a fight as to force lawmakers to drop the idea.
It seems a foregone conclusion now that Congress will feel compelled to create legislation and oversight in order to force networks to be better regulated (and protected).
The second major revelation, tied to the first, is that third parties were able to use illegally-obtained Facebook user information to create detailed profiles and trend analysis.
According to Wylie, while working for Cambridge Analytica back in 2014, more than 50 million Facebook user profiles were harvested. That data was purchased from Professor Kogan who had developed one of those typical quizzes you’ve seen time and again on Facebook. The quiz was used to gain permission to access user data, which Kogan then used in his research and later shared.
Facebook was aware of the transference of data by 2015 and demanded that Cambridge Analytica delete the data. According to Facebook, they received certifications from Kogan and all parties that the data was removed, but learned from reports this year that wasn’t completely accurate.
We now know that Cambridge Analytica was essentially a mind-fuck operation. As Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian put it, “Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.”
If you’ve ever seen The General’s Daughter, you know what PsyOps is all about.
Their own website states, “With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.”
Yes, that’s virtually all of us (there are 250 million registered voters in the U.S.).
With the data they collected, they were hired by the Trump Campaign to, “identify voters to target with ads” as well as what approaches to take with the ads.
“The data points are not just a representative model of you.
The data points are about you, specifically.”
– Alexander Nix
An important note here is to be aware of the fact that, technically, there was no data breach. Profile data was not stolen or hacked or scraped from Facebook. Kogan was an academic who had initial permission from Facebook to create a data-collecting app as a developer, but who then broke Facebook’s terms of service when he sold that data. It’s also likely that both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica were in violation of UK law.
While the Russian operatives were creating and disseminating fake news stories, digital advertising teams, using data and analysis provided by Cambridge Analytica, were creating powerful micro targeted ad campaigns.
While journalists continue to dig up new information about how all of these events are tied together, special prosecutor Robert Mueller continues his own investigations. While both Congress and Parliament hold hearings.
The effects of these revelations, though, are chilling.
As the major elements of the Cambridge Analytica story have broken, stock in Facebook has responded accordingly, with a 7% drop on the first day of trading after the weekend, and more since.
The FTC is investigating whether this incident constitutes a breach in Facebook’s 2011 agreement to keep user data private. And Zuckerberg will almost assuredly be asked to testify in front of Congress and Parliament. (Mark Schaefer has even suggested that Facebook should return to being a private company and reduce the strain between security and profits.)
If there are no more bombshells, and Facebook is able to be seen as aggressively moving to not only address the data issue with Prof. Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, but also working to ensure it never happens again, stock prices should even out relatively soon.
UPDATE 3/21 – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces specific steps taken, and which will be taken, to prevent this from happening again. Specifically, apps were already restricted in 2015 from being able to mine as much data as Kogan did in 2014, but Facebook is now reviewing data logs and will be conducting audits of any apps or developers that stand out in their data usage. Furthermore, apps will be limited even more in how much data they’re able to access without express permission.
But what if the other shoe drops? What if it’s found that there’s far more data than the 50 million profiles that’s been compromised, or if there really was a security breach?
Here’s a Facebook Live I recorded after more news and updates transpired:
Right now, Facebook usage was already on decline due to other changes the network had implemented over the past few months, mostly to due with making sure that we all spend less time watching meaningless content. Which means it will be hard to show, quantitatively, if there’s been an impact on whether individuals will use the platform.
Expect that to be a more obvious and precipitous drop if there is a lot more bad news forthcoming.
Which is what makes the entire episode so precarious for Facebook and, more importantly, for businesses like yours and mine that are utilizing Facebook to reach an audience.
Whether you’re seeing success organically or via paid advertising, Facebook represents a valuable resource that we could be seeing a significant shift in. If dramatically fewer people use the platform in the coming months, businesses will see that impact on their referral traffic, ad clicks, and sales revenue.
At this time, it’s certainly unclear whether there will be such significant disruption and fallout. It’s unlikely that the Cambridge Analytica Bomb is the kind of atomic weapon needed to completely blow up the social network giant.
My advice, as always, is to never rely on a single platform or network to promote and grow your business. If that’s you, right now, you need to start looking at other social networks and mediums on which to reach your audience. Diversify.
Meanwhile, I will be watching the rest of these events unfold and will add to this story (or add more stories) as needed.
Your questions and comments are welcome below (but note that any heated politically-oriented, off-topic comments will simply be marked as spam). And if you have further information or insight, please let me know. These are confusing, troubling times for all of us.