The case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in 7 questions and answers
Facebook, the American Republican party and an English consulting firm are at the center of one of the biggest political-technological scandals in history. At our expense, we, that in spite of laws and insurance, can not exercise any control over the use of data that we share online.
On 18 March, two parallel investigations by the Guardian and the New York Times catapulted Facebook into the center of one of the biggest media storms in its history: Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm, would have misused the data of over 50 million American voters profiling psychology and behavior based on monitoring their activities on Facebook.
The suspicion is that Cambridge Analytica has influenced the voting intentions of millions of people thanks to the wise use of personal data acquired unlawfully, without the knowledge of the voters themselves. A serious matter, which a few hours after the publication has decreased the value of Facebook shares by 6.8% and that Mark Zuckerberg has cost over $ 9 billion of his personal assets.
A matter that, once again, questions the right of web users to know who accesses their data and for what purpose. So let us first of all understand what happened and then also how the information we sow on the Net even without realizing it can be used to influence our behavior and our perception of reality.
1. WHAT IS CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA?
A research institute founded by Robert Mercer in 2013 and specialized in the psychometric analysis of users of social networks: starting from the analysis of “likes” left on Facebook, experts are able to build the behavioral profile and characteristics more salient of the personality of every single user.
The greater the number of “likes” analyzed, the more accurate the psychometric profile is achieved. The more they are the better it is, but they do not need many: a study published last fall had in fact highlighted how, using appropriate analysis tools, even just one “like” was sufficient to frame the tastes and preferences of those who left it.
Returning to current events, according to the findings of the investigation, the profiles developed by C.A. on this basis they would have been integrated with other profiling data marketed by information brokers, ie companies that collect information on consumer habits and lifestyles starting from the thousands of digital traces that everyone leaves behind him every day, often without knowing it.
2. WHAT IS BEHAVIORAL MICROTARGETING?
A system that allows companies to convey highly personalized advertising on each individual user (online). When we buy something online, when we use a loyalty card, or simply surf the Internet, we leave small electronic crumbs that, although anonymous, thanks to special software – such as those made by Cambridge Analytica – can be put together, traced to a single entity individual. Up to this point profiling can also be anonymous, but when the data are crossed with those of the social magically become a name, a surname and a face.
It is thanks to these technologies that Cambridge Analytica has been able to develop a powerful microrargeting system for the use and consumption of its customers, companies, but also “people”, as we will see later. According to the creator of the software, Michal Kosinski, thanks to this huge amount of information Cambridge Analytica is able to leverage not only user preferences, as other marketing companies do, but also on their emotions, desires, fears.
It is able to convey the most effective message in the moment and in the context in which the user is more sensitive and more willing to listen to it. “Convincing someone to vote (or not to vote, we add) a party is not very different from convincing him to buy a certain brand of toothpaste”: this was the mantra of Richard Robinson, one of the company’s managers.
3. WHAT IS THE ROLE OF FACEBOOK IN THIS EVENT?
In 2015, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan, developed the This is your digital life app, which allows users to obtain psychological profiles and predict their behavior from online activities. To use the app users had to register using the Facebook Login: this is a function of Facebook that allows you to subscribe to an online service using the credentials with which you access the social network.
When you make a Facebook Login you agree that the site you are registering for obtain some of our personal data including name, surname, email address, gender, age.The practice is legal and is clearly explained by Facebook which, at the time of registration, shows a summary screen of the information we are sharing.
In 2015, Kogan’s app contains over 270,000 entries. Among the information that at the time Facebook allowed to obtain data on the network of friendships. According to the New York Times and the Guardian, this practice, later blocked by Facebook itself, allows a Kogan to quickly collect data from over 50 million users of Zuckerberg’s social network, including their interests, photos , I places I had visited. A huge archive, which Kogan shares with Cambridge Analytica.
4. FACEBOOK KNEW ABOUT THE TRADE IN PERSONAL DATA?
The fact is that “social media is the new battlefield,” Wylie explains in an interview with Channel 4, and users are the targets. And maybe even the weapons, we add, because of the way they are said to have been piloted on the occasion of the last US presidential elections.
5. WHAT’S THINKING TRUMP?
In 2016, the Donald Trump committee entrusted the data collection for its electoral campaign to Cambridge Analytica. Although the official role of C.A. stop here, the investigations conducted to date have established that during the pro-Trump election campaign, numerous fake accounts and bots were used to spread false news and other content aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton.
Tens of thousands of posts were published every day, especially during the TV debates and other major electoral events: the effectiveness of the posts was analyzed in real time (on the basis, for example, of the “hot” responses) so as to be able to favor those who were most able to influence the opinions of the electorate. For these activities Cambridge Analytica would have provided skills and technologies.
6. HOW TO MAKE A FAKE NEWS
In a video published just a few days after the investigation and filmed with a camera hidden by Channel 4 journalists, Alexander Nix, managing director of Cambridge Analytica, explains to a potential buyer of the services of his company (actually a journalist in disguise ) how it is possible to frame a politician or a public figure by creating an ad hoc scandal thanks to the collaboration of former Russian and British spies and some girls ready for anything.
On that same occasion, Mark Turnbull, C.A.’s chief operating officer, explained in great detail the operation of the mud machine: “We simply put information on the Internet, then we observe it as it grows and becomes viral. We give a push every once in a while and come back to spread again … like with a remote control. It must happen without anyone thinking that it is propaganda, because otherwise the next question is: ‘who circulated it?’ “. Last March 20, Cambrige Analytica announced that it has suspended Alexander Nix while waiting for the story to be clarified.
For the moment this is all: the journalistic investigation of the Guardian and the New York Times, although not coming to prove with certainty the guilt of anyone, once again highlights how we are completely disarmed against the misuse of data that more or less consciously we entrust to the Net. In the next months (and years, probably) these events will be clarified in the courts of half the world: in the meantime we never tire of repeating that the best weapon against hoaxes, fake news, and manipulation remains the critical sense and the verification of information through reliable sources.