The Cambridge Analytica saga is a scandal of Facebook’s own making


This mess was inevitable. Facebook has worked tirelessly to gather as much data on users as it could – and to profit from it

By John Harris

Big corporate scandals tend not to come completely out of the blue. As with politicians, accident-prone companies rarely become that way by accident, and a spectacular crisis can often arrive at the end of a long spell of bad decisions and confidence curdling into hubris. So it is with the tale of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and a saga that vividly highlights the awful mess that the biggest player in billions of online lives has turned into.

Four days after a story pursued for over a year by my brilliant Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr burst open, its plot now feels very familiar: in early 2014, 270,000 people did an online “personality test” that appears to have resulted in information about 50 million of their Facebook friends being passed to the nasty and amoral men featured in Channel 4’s secret filming, which would be in contravention of Facebook’s rules about data being used by third parties for commercial purposes. In the second act, Facebook failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the data in question. On Tuesday, as Facebook’s value continued to slide, the plot thickened, with the re-appearance of a whistleblower named Sandy Parakilas, who claimed that hundreds of millionsmore people were likely to have had similar information harvested by outside companies, and that while he was working for the company between 2011 and 2012, Facebook’s systems for monitoring how such information was used often seemed to barely exist.

Even if Facebook has since changed its rules to stop third-party apps gaining access to data from people’s friends, all this still goes back to something that remains absolutely fundamental to the company. A lot of its users know, and yet constantly choose to forget: beneath all the bromides about “bringing the world closer together” gushed out by its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the joy of posting your holiday pictures, Facebook’s employees tirelessly work to amass as much data as they can about users and their online friends and make vast amounts of money by facilitating micro-targeting by advertisers. (This has had nasty aspects beyond political messaging: it was only last year, for example, that Facebook decisively stopped housing advertisers excluding certain ethnic groups, and disabled people).

If you use its services as their creators intend and cough out the small details of your life on a daily – or even hourly – basis, Facebook will know all about your family, friends, education, politics, travel habits, taste in clothes, connected devices, and scores of things besides. Its eyes can extend just about everywhere online: to quote from its privacy policy, “We receive data whenever you visit a game, application, or website that uses Facebook Platform or visit a site with a Facebook feature … sometimes through cookies.” And though third-party apps can be restricted from scooping up personal information, we all know what tends to deliver their makers what they want: the fact that most people have no idea how to restrict access to their data, and are subtly enticed to ignore such things.

All this stuff defines Facebook’s raison d’etre. Indeed, hinting at its drive for omniscience, Zuckerberg once habitually talked about what Facebook insiders called radical transparency, an idea that partly amounted to an insistence that old ideas about privacy were becoming outmoded. Facebook was leading the way, and this was nothing but a good thing.

“To get people to the point where there’s more openness – that’s a big challenge,” Zuckerberg said. “But I think we’ll do it. I just think it will take time. The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people, and it runs into all these privacy concerns.” (You could write a doctoral thesis about those words: the professed belief in improving the lot of humanity sounding distinctly like window-dressing for the company’s pursuit of endlessly increasing revenues; the seeming impatience summed up in the words “all these privacy concerns”.) In retrospect, talking like that, and encouraging your people to think of a lot of worries about personal confidentiality as increasingly the stuff of the past, was always going to invite disaster.

Facebook’s latest bout of anxiety and what some people call “reputational damage” now dates back at least 18 months. By the end of the US presidential election campaign, its algorithms had ensured that the top fake stories in people’s news feeds were generating more engagement than the most popular real ones. Zuckerberg initially described the claim that Facebook had been instrumental in the victory of Donald Trump as a “pretty crazy idea”, only to recant. Having been scared by Twitter and enthusiastically pushing the idea that Facebook could be a news platform, he then ran in the opposite direction, insisting that its job was to allow people to share “personal moments”. At times, he looks like someone who cannot keep up even with himself.

Facebook sometimes behaves like a government – sending in “auditors” to examine material at the London offices of Cambridge Analytica while the UK information commissioner’s investigators waited for legal permission to do the same thing, and reportedly demanding access to the whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s phone and computer. But at the same time, its bosses defy the most basic expectations of corporate governance. Like Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg is still nowhere to be seen: a statement issued on Tuesday said he and Sandberg were “working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward”, and that “the entire company is outraged we were deceived”, which is most of the way to being laughable. Were it not for his $70bn fortune, he would arguably inspire pity, rather than anger: it looks like he is in way over his head.

Even if the majority of Facebook users still seem content to give it the data it constantly devours, over the past two or three years, a rising chorus of voices has demanded that governments and legislators bring the company to heel. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation represents a step in the right direction; as does the fact that the Cambridge Analytica scandal is being looked into by the US federal trade commission. The work being done by the Tory MP Damian Collins as the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee is great to see. But even at their most potent, these efforts do not get near questions centred on Facebook’s sheer size, and the possibility of anti-monopoly action that would have to originate on the company’s home turf.

In the US, anti-trust actions only succeed if a supposedly monopolistic company can be found to have affected consumers’ wellbeing in terms of the quality of products and services they can access, the levels of innovation in a given economic sector, and in particular, the prices people have to pay. The fact that Facebook would probably slip free of such criteria surely suggests that the rules are unfit for the online age, and that a different set of considerations ought be introduced, perhaps built around the power a company wields, relative to its collective competence. In those terms, Zuckerberg and his colleagues are guilty of an epic fail, and everything that now happens to them should follow from it.

 John Harris is a Guardian columnist

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.

Gaetz wants Sessions to ‘RENOUNCE’ his recusal, FORCE Mueller to put out his evidence!

Rep. Gaetz appears to have given up on getting Sessions fired, and now he wants Sessions to “renounce” his recusal, reinstate his power over the Department of Justice, and force Mueller to put out whatever evidence he has.

Watch below:

It’s interesting how they toss out trial balloons. It’s probably an attempt to persuade Sessions, and thus far, he has been unpersuadable. Unfortunately for Trump, he picked a guy with real principles that he believes in and sticks to. He basically has to fire him.

Here’s the rest of the interview:

Toxic nothingburger: Cambridge Analytica exposé is dangerous political attack posing as journalism

Seeing Donald Trump’s media and political critics, who for years feted “big data,” suddenly pretend it’s a crime, is hard to stomach. And the feigned outrage is being used as a weapon of establishment control over social media.

READ MORE: US Federal Trade Commission to probe Facebook for use of personal data – Bloomberg

Before being repackaged by two leading liberal-leaning outlets to produce a media firestorm that has wiped tens of billions off Facebook’s valuation and could usher in a new wave of investigations and regulation, the actual facts of Cambridge Analytica’s data collection had been known since 2015. What has changed is the language: what the Guardian called “psychological profiling” and “behavioral microtargeting” before Donald Trump was elected, in the latest reports from the same newspaper becomes “psyops,” the sinister-sounding “harvesting,” the alarming “data breach,” and most gloriously “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf**k tool.”


Behind the grand claims, the germ of the story remains – by tech standards – almost disappointingly quotidian. In 2014, the upstart data analysis company Cambridge Analytica developed a psychological quiz app that over 270,000 users of the world’s biggest social network downloaded and completed. As well as passing their own data to the UK-headquartered firm, the test-takers agreed to share limited information about their friends – age, location and likes – as in line with Facebook’s policy at the time, producing the much-cited but unverified figure of 50 million users that were profiled.

Mark Zuckerberg © Stephen Lam / Reuters

Whether and to what extent this constituted legal wrongdoing or a violation of service terms is still to be ruled on. Facebook says that users “knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked” and that Cambridge Analytica merely used the data beyond its original purpose, and was told to delete it, and has suspended it from its platform. Cambridge Analytica counters that it was misled and got rid of the data as it was instructed. Facebook argues that it did not violate its users’ self-selected privacy settings when it gave away their data, though regulators may argue otherwise.

But despite the lengths of text expended, none of this is a “gotcha”moment. Thousands of apps, including those with a wider user base, such as Tinder or Farmville, also collected the same data from Facebook through the same consent protocols, until the company changed its policy in April 2015, and similar information is still being directly gathered from users who decide to download apps today, or even simply log into a website using Facebook. Just check your own list of apps on the network and see how many firms you are letting “scrape” your personal info – all voluntarily.

It is also unclear if the data swayed any key election. In the 2016 cycle it was first employed by Ted Cruz, whose campaign barely dented frontrunner Trump’s popularity, and then by Trump himself. The work it did for the winning candidate, as described by both their CEO Alexander Nix and the New York Times piece, also seems standard-issue rather than ingenious or devious – designing who to target with fund-raising and voting appeals, research modeling, and data-driven campaigning, such as deciding where Trump and Pence should canvass. The much-vaunted psychographics – which contentiously claim to be able to understand people through their personal preferences and other indirect data – were not even used in 2016, according to Nix, as there wasn’t enough time. In fact, while he says that Cambridge Analytica played a “pivotal” role in helping to get a lackadaisical campaign moving, the company insists it did not deploy the 2014 Facebook data at all in Trump’s march to the White House.

Cambridge Analytics CEO Alexander Nix / Reuters

It used to be cool once

The more interesting part of the story – and, ironically, the real “psychological warfare mindf**k tool” – is how the concerning but dry, old and not particularly secret revelations have been pitched up into a hysteria.

The secret ingredient is persistence – growing allegations delivered in an ever more shrill tone.

The Guardian, in particular, has repeatedly tried to pin down Cambridge Analytica, particularly with its piece in May last year, headlined“The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked,” which earned it a defamation lawsuit from the data company. Though Cambridge Analytica has been culpable itself, happy to play up to its shadowy all-powerful puppet master image, as long as it got them notoriety and clients, and now left furiously tweeting denials when it may be too late.


Last month, the New York Times was wondering if firms like Cambridge Analytica made a difference; now it declares the “operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected.”

“Has the rise of micro-targeting become a threat to democracy?”inquires the Guardian, adding in its claims against Facebook that “Frankenstein’s monster is not under any human’s control.”

The concern seems somewhat new-found.

Here is another article from the same newspaper, from 2012 under the headline “Obama, Facebook and the power of friendship” – which even social media fans would find a little Orwellian.

Enthusiastically, it describes as “consciously or otherwise, the individual [Obama campaign] volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page – home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends – directly into the central Obama database.” Sound familiar?


There are dozens of perfectly accessible articles across most mainstream media, detailing with enthusiasm, Barack Obama becoming the first Twitter president, his campaign using people’s DVR histories to determine which voters to target (doesn’t seem to be much consent there) or his “audacious adventure in persuasion” that selected potentially pliable voters, who would then be persistently called and doorstepped by campaigners. Evidently, micro-targeting wasn’t as much of a threat to democracy from him (or Hillary Clinton).

Shadows of other recent partisan campaigns lurk everywhere.

The Guardian has published an article highlighting the links between Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist at the heart of the to-and-fro between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and St. Petersburg University, Vladimir Putin’s alma mater.

Adam Schiff, the Democrat House representative, has asked Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee who fleshed out the weekend’s exposés with his colorful personal tales, to testify in Congress as part of the Russia meddling allegations, though there appears to be no tangible link.

First they came for Cambridge Analytica

Yet, however sexed up the news value of the story, or murky its motivations, it has broken through. Theresa May is “very concerned,” UK MPs want Mark Zuckerberg to testify, Cambridge Analytica’s offices will be searched, the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook, the EU has labeled the allegations “horrifying.” Facebook security officer Alex Stamos is already the first head to roll, leaving the company, and Nix has also offered to resign.

Of course, many will relish a blow to Facebook, a platform vocally disliked even by many of its avid users, regardless of who is delivering it. The issues of data security and privacy still remain uncharted and important for the future, and the California giant has always skirted as close to the line as the law and its users have let it. As for Cambridge Analytica, no one will shed a tear, particularly after the Channel 4 hitpiece on the company, which even if it used entrapment, made its staff look criminal or amateur.

But schadenfreude comes at a price. US social media giants have been under increasing pressure to exert greater control over the content their users see. Whether it is through claims of Russian bots, excessive exposure to RT, pro-AFD groups on Facebook, or Steve Bannon’s banner ads, the establishment, both ruling and media, senses a loss of control over the narrative and the width of the political spectrum. With a single change in its algorithm – either enforced from above to stave off further regulation, and self-inflicted as it tries to save its skin – Facebook could cut off not just a post you don’t want to click, but those you also do. And media-fueled public outrage has always been as good a pathway to censorship as any.



‘It’s very dangerous when most of a country believes a small group is manipulating decisions’

Steve Watson | – MARCH 20, 2018

In light of a A Monmouth University poll that found an overwhelming majority of Americans believe a deep state is running government policy, MSNBC’s Morning Joe panel went into full on panic, suggesting that the notion was invented by President Trump, and that Americans are embracing his ‘conspiracy theories’.

“This is real,” Mika Brzezinski said, suggesting that Trump “may be on to something” as he continues to call out the intelligence community and highlight their misdeeds and failings.

“The attacks against the so-called deep state … by the president and some Republicans actually might be taking hold,” Brzezinski told viewers.

“America is an idea, it’s not a democracy, it’s not a republic before it is an idea,” said analyst Mike Barnicle.

“And the idea that 74 percent, according to the Monmouth University poll, believe there is a deep state run by a military-political intellectual hierarchy, apart from government, and this is the gift we’ve gotten from Donald Trump.” Barnicle continued to spout.

“This is the gift we’ve gotten from him surrendering to Vladimir Putin and causing chaos in the country.” Barnicle charged.

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas declared that “This is not happening in a vacuum,” expressing concern over how a mistrust in a deep state among Americans would affect foreign policy.

“Over the next two or three months this administration is going to face three enormous decisions, what to do about these tariffs, and what to do about the Iran nuclear agreement, and the idea that it is consumed by this chaotic churn of people and what to do about this investigation, the combination of the two, again, this is about as bad as it gets.” Haas complained.

NBC News political reporter Carol Lee suggested that the survey is “a direct result of what we’ve seen the president try to do which is sew doubt” about “the FBI and other agencies.”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius chimed in, declaring it to be “a very dangerous time,” consisting of “Real challenges for an inexperienced president.”

“It’s a very dangerous thing when most of a country believes a small group in the country is manipulating decisions,” he said. “We’ve seen that historically in countries that begin to break down.” Ignatius exclaimed.

Ignatius then suggested that such beliefs lead to dictatorships, implicitly comparing Trump to past dictators in the middle east and beyond.

“You get a situation where a demagogic leader — gosh think of who that might be — that appeals to precisely that feeling people have, and then you really start to go over the edge.” Ignatius said.

Clearly these elitists and their media mouthpieces are in shock over how many Americans are waking up to the actions of those who lurk in the shadows, with the President unwilling to go along with their endless scheming.