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Opinion What did Facebook know about Cambridge Analytica’s work, and when did it know it?

The Facebook logo is seen at a gathering of start-up companies last year in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

The New York Times reports:

Facebook on Sunday faced a backlash about how it protects user data, as American and British lawmakers demanded that it explain how a political data firm with links to President Trump’s 2016 campaign was able to harvest private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without the social network’s alerting users.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, went so far as to press for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to appear before the panel to explain what the social network knew about the misuse of its data “to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”
The calls for greater scrutiny followed reports on Saturday in The New York Times and The Observer of London that Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, had used the Facebook data to develop methods that it claimed could identify the personalities of individual American voters and influence their behavior. The firm’s so-called psychographic modeling underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, though many have questioned the effectiveness of its techniques.
But Facebook did not inform users whose data had been harvested. The lack of disclosure could violate laws in Britain and in many American states.

There is also widespread anger from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill that Facebook has been less than forthcoming.

News reports now suggest that contrary to prior representations, Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by Jared Kushner to run Trump’s data operation, had contacts with Russians, specifically a Russian energy firm. (“Energy firm Lukoil, which is now on the US sanctions list and has been used as a vehicle of government influence, saw a presentation on the firm’s work in 2014. It began with a focus on voter suppression in Nigeria, and Cambridge Analytica also discussed ‘micro-targeting’ individuals on social media during elections.”)

Cambridge Analytica was also the subject of a Wall Street Journal report, which found that “the chief executive of a data-analytics firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to offer help organizing the Hillary Clinton-related emails the website was releasing, according to a person familiar with the effort. The outreach by the CEO of the firm, which is partly owned by a major Trump donor and has close ties to a Trump adviser, came as Mr. Trump was publicly cheering the leaks of his Democratic rival’s emails and some supporters were seeking to unearth further messages.” And one more nugget: None other than Michael Flynn had an “advisory role” with a firm linked to Cambridge Analytica.

Maybe this is all coincidence. Perhaps Cambridge Analytica has no role whatsoever in providing guidance or data to Russians seeking to manipulate the U.S. election. Perhaps Facebook was an entirely innocent player, hoodwinked by Cambridge Analytica (which was recently suspended from the platform), and had no idea that all this data was being sourced to aid in foreign manipulation of our election. However, at this point, Congress and the American people have considerable reason to doubt those conclusions.

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Congress needs to get executives from Facebook (Zuckerberg himself) and Cambridge Analytica up to the Hill promptly to get answers from both firms. The public needs to know:

  • What was the extent of contacts between Cambridge Analytica and Russian officials?
  • Did Cambridge Analytica help guide the Russian social media operation by, for example, targeting specific users?
  • What information did Kushner have, if any, about Cambridge Analytica’s operation and its use of Facebook data?
  • What did Facebook know about Cambridge Analytica’s operation, when did it know it, and has it been candid and forthcoming in its disclosures?

Answers to these questions are critical not only to the Russia investigation but also to the future of social media platforms. The stakes are obviously high for Facebook, especially if it (intentionally or not) provided more of a boost to Trump’s victory than previously acknowledged. As intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance put it, “What happens if 100s of millions of progressives worldwide abandon Facebook because they think it’s a tool of Trump, Russia authoritarians and neo-Nazis? Facebook needs to own up and do damage control to ensure they are not 2018’s information cruise missile of choice.” Even if it never intended to bolster Trump, it’s hard to disagree that it was lax in recognizing manipulation of its platform and in disclosing the extent of the misuse of users’ data. “What’s clear is that Facebook has built up a massive intelligence tool that can be exploited by foreign actors who don’t care at all if they are violating Facebook’s user agreements,” remarks Max Bergmann, who heads the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress. “This incident demonstrates that it is time for Washington to get serious about regulating the tech companies. They’ve been living in a libertarian fantasy world of ‘don’t be evil’ but that doesn’t work when you have a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders to prioritize profits.”

Facebook’s conduct during and after the 2016 election may well lead to federal regulation of social media of the type Klobuchar, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are sponsoring, which would require archiving of political ads with detailed information regarding “a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged, and the contact information of the purchaser” and also subject online ads to the same campaign regulations that govern TV and radio ads.

At this point, it is increasingly hard to argue against such regulation, given the cavalier conduct of Facebook and the obvious opportunities for abuse by malicious foreign governments.