There has been one major news story in the tech industry this week and that is the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story. It has dominated the headlines this past week and could have far reaching implications for you and your business as some experts are forecasting that Facebook as we know it is finished. So today we take a brief look at what is going on with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and what it could mean for you.

What is Cambridge Analytica?

First what exactly is the issue? Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm led by Steve Bannon that specializes in data mining and analysis, was hired by the Trump Campaign in 2016 to try to gain the personal information of millions of Facebook users to try to identify their personalities and to figure out who could be influenced into voting for Trump. As many as 50 million Americans may have had their private information collected using a series of surveys or by downloading an app that was capable of gathering some of their information as well as some of their Facebook friends as well. Only about a quarter of a million Americans actually consented to giving their personal information via the app. No passwords or sensitive information was stolen so while some have characterized this as a data breach it is not in the same way Experion or LinkedIn is.

Immediate implications for Facebook

This has properly led to an outcry prompting state, federal and international investigations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been making the rounds on TV apologizing and promising to do better in the future. Congress and other federal authorities are threatening an investigation and Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before Parliament in London. Many Facebook users as vowing to leave the platform or have already left it prompting predictions of a MySpace-like collapse by some experts. Facebook stock has also taken a hit dropping tens of billions of dollars in the last week and at least one executive is leaving as chief security officer Alex Stamos has announced that he is stepping down in August.

Cambridge Analytica was not the first to try this

The use of Facebook apps to mine users information was already under scrutiny even before Cambridge Analytica launched its effort. In 2011 the FTC investigated Facebook and fined them when it was found that apps were able to harvest user information even after the company said they couldn’t. Another effort was done in 2014 by Cambridge University paying users a small amount of money to take personality quizzes, which was allowed under the terms of service. The terms of service were violated though when the results of these quizzes were passed on to Cambridge Analytica. A test run it seems but it caught Facebook’s attention and the practice was banned though seemingly not stopped.

With political tensions already high the situation is not likely to be defused anytime soon. The left is outraged, believing that Trump used the information to steal the election though it seems he may have only used Cambridge Analytica during the primaries instead choosing to use voter data provided by the RNC for the general election. The right comes back saying that Barack Obama did the same thing in 2012 (with Facebook’s tacit approval no less) and that no one was outraged when he did it. Quite the contrary Obama was even praised for being so forward thinking and this simply took his reach to the next level. There is a difference in that what Obama did was quasi-legal under the then-terms of service and came in the form of an app linked to his campaign rather than a third party. The Obama campaign app was certainly not the only app that did this, in fact most apps did this and still do it.

For the Obama campaign the app would be given access to not only the consenting party’s personal information but also that of their friends. It would grab birth dates, locations and likes. The app would allow users to donate to the campaign, educate the user and also allow them to post photos but most importantly those people consented to use the app (though their friends did not). Since the app came from the campaign itself there was no question that any information would go to the Obama campaign and it gave Obama a new and unprecedented way to reach out to undecided or opposition voters.

Why Cambridge Analytica is different

In the case of Cambridge Analytica few people consented to use the app, which mostly conducted surveys or personality quizzes for “academic” use. One can learn a lot by giving someone the opportunity to find out what character from Star Wars they would be or what kind of potato they are. While both used the data to try to figure out who a person was likely to vote for Cambridge Analytica also built psychological profiles of the people to try to figure out who could be swayed by well-placed advertising and then targeting those people with ads. The Trump campaign advertised extensively on Facebook and seems to have put the data to use.

Was it effective? That will be hard to impossible to tell if it was enough to swing the election in favor of Trump. Is it just the next logical step in what social media data mining could be? That is a yes and we should all realize that any information that we put on the Internet could be seen by anyone. We should hardly be surprised as political office seekers have long sought to get their name in front of the voting constituent and with more and more people using social media platforms like Facebook it was probably inevitable.

Could Facebook be dying?

With social media platforms already under scrutiny for political censorship will this lead to a death spiral of Facebook? Probably not, though Facebook (and other social media companies) will most certainly face tougher scrutiny from their users and regulatory bodies in the future. So far there is also not a platform that will take its place and a lot of people have invested a lot of time with it so at least for the moment you and your businesses’ Facebook page are safe. There will certainly be some users who stop using the platform which will reduce the effectiveness of it but more than likely this is just a case of everyone being angry at Facebook over something and the furor will be replaced when the next scandal hits. Some major personalities have deleted their Facebook pages and Americans in general are using it less so while Facebook has not died there is cause for concern regarding both it and other social media platforms.

Social media has become the dominant way to reach out and connect to voters (and potential customers for businesses), from a person running for the local school board to the person running for president of the United States. Politics can be and is a dirty arena so any and all methods seem to be used to get a message to potential voters. When it comes to social media this is still virgin territory and like with any platform politicians will look to exploit any loophole or will simply not care about the legality of a method as long as the ends justify the means (ie they are elected).

This seems like a case of someone breaking ground with it and then the enemy using doing the same thing to gain the same result. Obama’s effort was hailed as ground breaking and sparked little to no outrage at the time. It was only logical that something like this could be used by their opponents and more deceptively and guess what, it was.

Don’t let Hillary off the hook either

Oh, and since of course a good juicy political story in modern times cannot go without mentioning Hillary Clinton, her campaign relied heavily on data analytics building on what Obama has begun. Her efforts also used social media ads and was focused on phone calls and knocking on doors but in the waning days of the campaign there was an app that gathered Facebook user information and sent messages to their friends to vote for Clinton and to solicit donations. Even in 2016 when it was unveiled there was no outrage and the Trump campaign was derided for not having their own. If only they had known. Unfortunately for Clinton her state of the art analytical system failed in several crucial aspects. In the end though data cannot run the campaign, the candidate has to get out and spread the message but data can give them insight into where to go.

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