Facebook: gold rush of the lightly regulated digital economy may be at an end

Cambridge Analytica claims speak to our darkest Orwellian fears of how digital media has been weaponised to undermine democracy

Facebook has been forced onto the retreat in recent months by criticism of its role in disseminating false information, promoting extremism and increasing political polarisation. Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Facebook has been forced onto the retreat in recent months by criticism of its role in disseminating false information, promoting extremism and increasing political polarisation. Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

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The revelation that an estimated 50 million Facebook user profiles were harvested on behalf of Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based voter-profiling company which has carried out work for both the Trump presidential campaign and the Leave side in the Brexit referendum, will come as a shock but not a surprise to many.

The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company

Facebook has been forced on to the retreat in recent months by criticism of its role in disseminating false information, promoting extremism and increasing political polarisation. Cambridge Analytica, which is partly financed by the right-wing Mercer family and whose board includes Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, claimed that by combining social media data with psychological profiling it could deliver powerful political messages tailored to specific personality types. While some experts have contested the accuracy of some of these claims, and it is not possible to measure what effect, if any, these tactics had on the outcome of either the US election or the UK referendum, there is no doubt they speak to our darkest Orwellian fears of how digital media has been weaponised to undermine democracy and manipulate public opinion.

‘A growing number of people have no truck with Facebook’s pull.’ File photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
"More than two billion people around the world use Facebook regularly. It is unlikely they will decide to delete their accounts, as one recent campaign has proposed." File photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The vital questions of how this data was obtained, for what purposes it was used and who benefited from it must be answered definitively. But they should not obscure a broader truth: these actions were only possible because of the opportunities deliberately provided by Facebook and other technology companies, which within the space of a few years have become some of the most powerful organisations in the world due to the vast amounts of personal information they hold. It has become increasingly clear that these companies have prioritised their profits above those users’ rights to privacy and security.

“The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company,” a former Facebook employee told the New York Times this week. Another former employee told the Guardian the company had terms of service and settings that “people didn’t read or understand” and did not use its own enforcement mechanisms to ensure data was not being misused.

More than two billion people around the world use Facebook regularly. It is unlikely they will decide to delete their accounts, as one recent campaign has proposed. What is more probable is that the political impetus for more stringent legislation and stricter penalties will become irresistible, which explains in part why the company’s stock has slipped so badly since the revelations emerged.

The gold rush of the lightly regulated digital economy may finally be coming to a close, as civic society responds to the threat posed by unscrupulous operators using the tools which social media platforms offer to the highest bidder.

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