‘Disinformation, manipulation and propaganda’

Zucker: Facebook “made mistakes”, Zuckerberg admitted in a statement yesterday. © Getty

Is Facebook evil? Today the world’s largest social media company stands accused of undermining democracy, spreading fake news, inciting hatred, and violating the privacy of millions.

Six months ago, Mark Zuckerberg was being touted as a potential US president. Now, he is battling to save his reputation as his company is engulfed in scandal.

Facebook’s value has shrunk by $50 billion since last week. Zuckerberg himself has lost $9 billion.

It all began this past weekend, when The Observer alleged that 50 million Facebook profiles had been “harvested” in a “major data breach”. These were then used by a company called Cambridge Analytica (CA) in an attempt to sway the Brexit referendum and elect Donald Trump.

This data included a person’s “likes”, plus the likes of their friends. It was originally collected by a university researcher who studied how those likes can predict personalities. For example, a person who likes “running” is likely to be very conscientious. Marilyn Manson fans, meanwhile, are highly neurotic.

These “psychographic” profiles were used by CA to target political adverts at individual voters. For example, someone who was more anxious might see adverts about the threat from ISIS, and be encouraged to vote for Trump.

CA’s boss (who has now been suspended) was caught on tape boasting about swaying the election in Trump’s favour. He has since called those words “hyperbole”.

Meanwhile, Facebook is accused of having a dangerously lax attitude to data security, which has put democracy itself at risk.

This is just the latest scandal to erupt since 2016. Facebook has already been accused of helping to spread fake news, and publishing American political ads paid for in Russian rubles. Last week, the United Nations accused it of having a “determining role” in inciting hatred in Myanmar.

Even the co-founder of WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned company, tweeted #deletefacebook yesterday.

Now the UK and US are both investigating Facebook’s influence on elections, and have demanded that Zuckerberg testify to parliament. It is time “to stop hiding behind his Facebook page”, said British MP Damian Collins.

Is Facebook evil?

Like for like

Of course not, say some. It has been careless with users’ privacy. But (despite a rocky start) Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook has generally been good: bring the world together, share information, and use the profits to “cure all disease” and tackle climate change. It is now facing some complications, but it is not entirely bad.

Think again, argue others. Facebook has always used data to sell adverts, manipulate emotions, and cause people to become addicted to using the social media platform. This is already sinister. But by crossing over into politics, and stirring up hatred by exploiting fears and spreading lies, Facebook becomes far darker — and most people are unaware that this even happens.

You Decide

  1. How much do you use social media?
  2. Is Facebook evil?

Activities

  1. Summarise this article in just 280 characters (the length of a tweet, another social media form that has been criticised lately).
  2. You are a member of the UK government’s digital, culture, media and sport select committee. Write a report on Facebook’s role in politics and the media, and then draft five questions that you would ask Mark Zuckerberg if he came to parliament to testify.

Some People Say...

“When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place.”

Mark Zuckerberg

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Facebook data was collected by the Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan using a personality quiz on behalf of Cambridge Analytica. He had permission to collect the data of the app’s users and their friends for academic purposes. He did not have permission to hand it over to CA. When the breach was first reported in 2015, Facebook told CA to delete the data, and it said it did.
What do we not know?
Whether the data was deleted, or if it still exists. We do not know if it was directly used in the Trump or Brexit campaigns in 2016, though CA was hired by both. It is unclear whether CA’s advertising techniques were able to swing those elections. Both were extremely close, and confounded the expectations of most political experts.

Word Watch

Breach
Facebook denies that there was a breach. But it admits that the data was collected for academic purposes, and then wrongly handed over to CA.
Personalities
The researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, works for Cambridge University which published the original study on likes and personality. It used a quiz to determine someone’s “big five” personality traits, matched them to their Facebook likes, and then looked for correlations between users. Eventually it was able to predict personality based on likes alone.
Boasting
He was recorded by an undercover journalist for Channel 4.
Rubles
Facebook has estimated that more than 126 million Americans could have seen Russian-bought ads in the run-up to Trump’s election.
Myanmar
The UN said that Facebook posts had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony” against Rohingya Muslims. Last year, 6,700 were killed in one month alone.
Rocky start
Zuckerberg founded Facebook aged 19, and based it on a controversial website which asked people to rate the attractiveness of their peers. He once said that Facebook’s earliest users were “dumb” for sharing their data with him.