Seeing as you’re internet-savvy enough to be reading this article right now, you’ve almost certainly heard that Facebook is in deep shit over a recent security breach.
Unless you’re well-versed in the esoteric field of digital ad targeting, however, the recent Facebook data scandal may seem terribly confusing. Even more difficult to understand is how it affects you — the Average, Mildly Online, John Q. Public Internet User. (Indeed, digital media companies such as Facebook, and the shadowy, third-party technology companies that mine Facebook for user data, and then sell it to the highest bidder, bank on the average citizen not understanding the intricacies of their data collection and message-targeting techniques.)
But trust us, you’re caught up in this whole mess, too.
Here then is a list of all the Facebook-related questions you had no idea to ask but should definitely know about.
First, what exactly happened?
In short, a political research firm called Cambridge Analytica was found to have shadily collected information on 50 million Facebook users for the purpose of helping Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
But don’t companies already do that kind of thing all the time?
Yep. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for a digital media product, then you are the product. That is, you’re exchanging your personal data for unlimited free access to the platform.
For Facebook, that means all of your activity on the platform is tracked and logged, and then monetized in the form advertising. Facebook does much of this data collection itself, but there’s also a galaxy of apps and third-party data firms whose sole purpose is to collect data on you and sell it to brands (more on that later).
This network of data brokers and ad sellers and buyers even has its own name: The LUMAscape. Check out how convoluted their ecosystem is:
(See: Above statement about this system being purposefully inscrutable.)
What’s the big deal then?
The big deal is Cambridge Analytica obtained this data illicitly and in a manner that can only be described as shady as hell.
Remember Farmville? Or the music app Songza? Or the handful of dating apps you’ve tried over the years? Or the dozens of other digital services you signed up for back in the day with your Facebook account, because you were too lazy to create a new user profile when you signed up for them?
Well, when you signed up for those apps with your Facebook login, you also consented to those third-party services accessing and monetizing your Facebook activity.
As for Cambridge Analytica, it paid users to take a personality test and download a third-party app of its own. About 270,000 Facebook users did just that. But Cambridge Analytica didn’t stop there — it mined their friends’ data, too, giving it access to 50 million discrete Facebook profiles. Fifty million people who never agreed to using the app, let alone sharing data with it, putting Cambridge Analytica in blatant violation of Facebook’s rules.
How much of this is about Trump?
In a case of cynical whataboutism, conservatives have tried to downplay the Cambridge Analytica scandal by reminding people that Obama’s campaign team engaged in the same kind of data targeting, and that people are only upset now because the firm in question was working on behalf of the Trump.
They’re half-right: The Obama Administration did pioneer many of the data mining and digital messaging techniques that are commonplace now. And it’s hard to believe it would be as big a scandal if it didn’t involve a president whom most Americans disapprove of. But the fundamental difference, according to Obama campaign staffers, is the Obama campaign didn’t collect its data illicitly — it was all done with the permission of those users, and in accordance to Facebook’s terms of service.
You didn’t answer your own question, though: What does this mean for me?
Maybe you were among the 270,000 people who downloaded the Cambridge Analytica app and were victims of its ruse. That’s gotta feel shitty. No one likes feeling tricked.
Or you could be among the 50 million Facebook users whose information was used to help get Donald Trump elected as president. And if you’re anti-Trump, that can be truly upsetting.
You didn’t even need to be a recipient of one of Trump’s political ads, or have voted for him, to have potentially aided his campaign. The mere use of your data could have informed the demographic models and targeting methods Cambridge Analytica used.
We don’t know whose data was used, however, because Facebook being Facebook, has yet to disclose any details about the whole thing.
But in a more general sense, it should trouble you that Facebook’s security is so poor that a political consulting company was able to abscond with data from 50 million users without Facebook noticing. And that data was subsequently used to influence the election for the leader of the free world. And that Facebook still hasn’t sufficiently addressed the issue.
That is troubling. What can I do about it?
Well, for starters, you can disconnect any third-party apps from your Facebook account. Log into Facebook and click the downward-facing arrow in the menu bar. From there, go to “Settings” and then “Apps,” and behold the digital graveyard of apps you allowed to access your Facebook profile. Click the X for each app you’d like to bar from accessing your data.
You’ll find you might not want to revoke access for some apps, though. That’s because it’s so much easier to just sign into Fandango with Facebook than to put in your profile info in every time.
If you’re really fed up, you could always delete your Facebook account entirely, but that’s even harder than getting rid of these parasitic apps.
Facebook must be screwed then, right?
Maybe. That remains the most unanswerable question in this controversy.
Facebook’s stock price dropped $17 following the news, and some people are already predicting the social media empire’s downfall.
But Facebook has faced privacy concerns since its founding, and every time it’s faced a user data scandal, people get upset for a few days and it’s quickly forgotten. People have yet to leave the platform in a substantial way, and Facebook has hedged itself against that kind of mass exodus by acquiring both Instagram and WhatsApp.
In fact, some financial analysts say now is a great time to buy Facebook stock on the cheap.