Facebook makes money from your privacy

Zuckerberg apologises before US Congress

Ville Karlsson   Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden)

On April 10 and 11, Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s fifth richest man, was questioned by the US Congress. The background to this is the so-called ‘Facebook scandal’ about how British-based company Cambridge Analytica (CA) used information collected illegally from Facebook users to influence elections (including US Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s respective election campaigns as well as the Brexit referendum).

Cambridge Analytica

In March 2018, several newspapers, including the New York Times, revealed that Cambridge Analytica had used personal data collected via Facebook for their own political purposes. It all began with Alex Nix from the consulting firm SCL Group, which specialises in psychological warfare and disinformation to influence election campaigns around the world, made contact with the Republican politician Robert Mercer and told him about a plan to develop a computer program to analyse and influence elections.

Nix and other employees were caught on film by undercover journalists from British Channel 4 Television talking about their methods, which include photographing political opponents in the company of prostitutes, spreading rumours of bribe taking, and utilising contacts from the Security Service MI5 to dig up damaging information about people.

With the help of millions in funding from Mercer, and support from the Trump campaign’s Steve Bannon (former head of far-right fake news site Breitbart News and top White House official until August 2017), the company Cambridge Analytica was founded. They employed computer engineers and psychologists to develop this software, but lacked the information they needed to get a more detailed picture of the people they were trying to analyse.

This led to data researcher Aleksandr Kogan from Cambridge University being paid to create an app (which consisted of a personality quiz) that would gather the information via Facebook. He promised Facebook, and everyone who agreed to make the test that their personal information would only be used for scientific purposes. The app collected information such as date of birth, which pages the person has liked, their geographic position, all information available on their Facebook profile and all their Facebook friends’ personal information.

The information was used to create a “psychographic profile” of Facebook users, which was then used to help Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Among other things, the information was used to determine target audiences, predict voting and decide the best places for Trump to visit. Cambridge Analytica admitted however that their models were not designed with the Trump Campaign in mind, but based on Ted Cruz’s previous campaign, due to lack of time. Who knows what they could have done if they had more time to perfect their tools?

Tens of millions of users affected

The New York Times reports that information has been collected in this way on at least 50 million users, while Facebook reports that up to 87 million users may have been affected. Whether Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing will lead to any major changes remains to be seen.

The Facebook owner repeatedly apologised for the many “mistakes” committed and promised improvement. He said was open to some sort of regulation to prevent a repetition, but warned against “hasty” action. The latter may have been raised because a number of politicians who were given the chance to ask questions of Zuckerberg did not seem to have much of an idea how the internet, Facebook and mobile phone technology work.

The Facebook scandal is undoubtedly a taste of something that may be even more common in the future: politicians and big companies using state-of-the-art technological advances to try to control opinion and create outcomes that benefit capitalism. The control of technology by powerful and unaccountable corporations and elites is a major threat to democratic rights and urgently poses the need for democratic public ownership and control by the working class.