It seems that British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica illegally gained access to over 50m Facebook user profiles to mine these for personal information that enabled them to create very personalized political messages. This form of data-driven and target-specific political communication has been critiqued widely.
More generally, practices of social media manipulation have been discussed with increased frequency over recent months, however, the outrage seems to be particularly high in this case. This time, there is clear evidence, and someone to blame.
But it this so easy? Why exactly are we speaking of a scandal here?
And most importantly: Why is anyone mad at Facebook?
While Facebook has admitted being guilty of gross negligence in handling its customer’s data – the company claims that Cambridge Analytica was holding on the user data without the knowledge of Facebook – they have not themselves performed any illegal actions. It was Cambridge Analytica who is ultimately to blame for gaining access to the data in the way that they dd, and using it for their campaign in a way that is now deemed illegitimate and a danger to democracy.
Yet, it seems that Facebook is taking much of the heat created by the public outrage. It seems to have escaped many people thus far that Facebook’s business model is to sell personal information and ad space. That is, to a large extent, how social media works. People share information with friends and publicly demonstrate their interests – this enables social media firms to create very accurate psychological profiles that enable advertisers to differentiate their audiences very effectively.
While this is obviously not exactly what happened in this case – Facebook was not directly involved with Cambridge Analytica – the deeper issue becomes immediately apparent.
While the practices of political campaigns executed by companies such as Cambridge Analytica now seem creepy to most, we have all ignored it when it was merely done to sell us stuff. In principle, there is no real difference here.
It seems that people have used social media for very long and just always assumed that these platforms were genuinely “for free”. The fetish of “free” seems to have lead people to believe that there is really no financial incentive for the providers.
Maybe a scandal like this was necessary for people to realize how the business model of social media really operates.
The political and public reaction to the issue presented by Cambridge Analytica seems to be reduced to “data security”. This is incredibly confusing as people seem to assume that there is a level of security that keeps their data from being used for targeted marketing. This completely ignores the business model underlying social media.
If people are genuinely concerned about their data and want to be free of psychological profiling performed by entities that seek to nudge people to behave according to their ends, this would be a great moment to vote with your feet.
The people, or the consumers have the power to dismiss companies or products simply by not buying or using them or to start using alternatives.
Social media that finances itself through a paid subscription service might be something to consider.