Column: Facebook doesn’t have a ‘scandal’
What the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal lacks in relevance it sure makes up for in melodramatic rhetoric. The story has consumed most of the mainstream media.
The theory goes something like this: Facebook obtained information on users who took a personality quiz with their online friends. Another outlet, the advertising firm Cambridge Analytica, harvested that information, and a former Cambridge Analytica contractor told CNN that while at the company, he helped build a “psychological warfare weapon” to “exploit mental vulnerabilities that our algorithms showed that (Facebook users) had.” In other words, he worked in advertising.
Those who have covered politics for more than a single Trump cycle should know better than to use this kind of unnerving rhetoric for what amounts to nothing more than average microtargeting, which has been used by hundreds, if not thousands, of firms. Yet now, when it serves to bolster theories about an election having been overthrown, terms like “psychographics” and “breach” are being used to make it sound like someone hacked into voter rolls after boring into the deepest recesses of our collective soul.
But if you’re uncomfortable with data mining and your information being shared, don’t take surveys. You don’t have to be on Facebook. You don’t have to use Twitter. You don’t have a constitutional right to play FarmVille without answering a survey.
Cambridge Analytica is a shady company owned by the British firm SCL Group — and, reportedly, in part by the right-wing-funding Mercer family — which claimed it could build models that identify persuadable voters by using six key personality types. Now it looks like the company kept data it shouldn’t have. Yet the effectiveness of Analytica’s targeting was as questionable as its business practices. As others have pointed out, most Republicans used the firm to open the door to the Mercers’ checkbook.
By using the word “breach,” reporters are trying to insinuate that someone stole voter data that typically was off-limits. Cambridge Analytica was allowed to pull that data. Facebook only changed its policy in early 2015. But before the general election, the Trump campaign dropped Cambridge Analytica for the Republican National Committee data, reportedly never using any of the “psychographic” information.
Even if the campaign hadn’t, however, its efforts would have been akin to those being heralded as revolutionary when Democrats did it. Facebook allowed the Obama campaign to harvest data the same way. There was no outrage and trepidation over the privacy and manipulation of your thoughts in 2012. The only consistent position the left seems to take these days is that the mechanisms it uses to keep power automatically transform into something nefarious and undemocratic when the opposition uses them. If anything, there should be concerned about the ideological double standards of yet another tech giant.
People shouldn’t get their news from Facebook. And a reliable Fourth Estate that reports without bias to help Americans navigate through this messy contemporary digital life would be helpful. But this story is just another example of how it fails.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist.