It is easy to be misled into believing that the Cambridge Analytica story is about rogue data miners taking advantage of an innocent Facebook. Facebook’s decision to suspend Cambridge Analytica’s access, the use of terms like “data breach”, and a good deal of coverage in the media seems to follow these lines. That, however, misses the key point. This is not a data breach by any means – and nor is it something that could not have been predicted or could easily have been avoided. This is, in many ways, Cambridge Analytica using Facebook exactly as the social media platform was designed to be used. This is how Facebook works.
Three key parts of Facebook’s model come into play: gathering data from people in order to profile them, both en masse and individually, designing systems that allow that data to be used to target people for advertising and content, then allowing third parties (generally advertisers) to use the data and those targeting systems for their own purposes. The power of these systems is often underestimated, but Facebook themselves know it, and have tested it in a number of ways.
They have demonstrated, through their “emotional contagion” experiment in 2014, that they can make people happier or sadder, simply by manipulating the order things appear in people’s timelines. They have demonstrated that they can make people more likely to vote, testing it in the 2010 US congressional elections. They can profile people based on the most mundane of information – the sheer scale of Facebook’s user-base and the amount of information given to them means that “big data” analysis can make connections that might seem bizarre, revealing insights into intelligence, politics, ethnicity and religion without people actually discussing any of those things directly.