No matter what your political leanings, there’s one thing that everyone can agree on when it came to the 2016 presidential election: it’s better left in the rear view mirror. It was one of the most exhausting and vitriolic campaigns the United States had ever seen and most folks were glad to be done with it, even if they didn’t get the outcome they’d hoped for.
But it was Faulkner who said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The 2016 election still lives and will live on for years to come, and not just because of what the victor would do once in office. For the first time in history, the elections showed how social media could be abused.
Since it was founded in 2004, Facebook has become one of the biggest and most influential companies in the world. With over 2.2 billion active users, there are just slightly less Facebook users than there are Christians in the world.
And because so many Facebook users use it as one of their primary means of communication and as the source for their news, it’s easy to see how the company has a massive influence on the course of global events.
This Time Is Different
But perhaps it wasn’t quite clear just how influential Facebook was until the United States’ presidential election of 2016. Not only did the information – and disinformation – spread on the social media platform influence how some people voted, Facebook was also a massive source of information for the candidate’s campaigns.
After The Fact
But one of the things that happened with Facebook during the 2016 election didn’t come out to the public until early 2018 and, when it did, it would ultimately be a huge scandal that reshaped the way we thought about how social media platforms can affect democracy.
In March of 2018, a man named Christopher Wylie came forward to blow the whistle on the actions of his former company, Cambridge Analytica. He said that Cambridge Analytica, which had worked on the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, had illegitimately obtained data from as many as 87 million Facebook profiles.
While it’s not unusual for data analytics companies to use information from people’s profiles, those people would normally have to give their consent for a company to do so. Cambridge Analytica had gathered information from people without obtaining their consent, utilizing a loophole within Facebook.
But how exactly did it work? Like most apps within Facebook that gather your information, Cambridge Analytica made an application that offered a quiz where, in order to see your results, you had to agree to give them access to your Facebook profile page. The difference here was that if someone you were Facebook friends with gave them access to their page, Cambridge Analytica were granted access to your page as well.
Breaking The Rules
Up to that point, Facebook allowed third-party developers like Cambridge Analytica to collect information from the networks of their users in this way with one simple rule: that data couldn’t be marketed or sold. But Cambridge Analytica simply ignored that rule.
Technically speaking, none of the information gathered from user profiles was private. It’s just that the vast majority of users didn’t know that their information wasn’t private and that it could be gathered in such a fashion.
And because it wasn’t common knowledge that its users’ information could just be scooped up without consent, Facebook really had no incentive to do anything about it. Of course, that all changed once the scandal broke. But by that point, it was too late to stop the damage that had already been caused two years prior.
The breach of information coupled with the attempts to control people’s votes caused an immediate uproar. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the situation, calling it an “issue,” a “mistake,” and a “breach of trust,” and pledged to make changes and reforms to Facebook policy to prevent something similar from happening in the future.
Zuckerberg Goes to Washington
But his apologies and assurances weren’t enough to stop Congress from calling Zuckerberg to testify before them in April where he was grilled for not doing enough to prevent Facebook from being used as a tool to harm its users.
As part of the effort to prevent similar breaches from happening in the future, Facebook took several steps. First, they informed those 87 million users that they believed had had their data taken by Cambridge Analytica.
They also made it an effort to make Facebook’s settings more accessible to users. That meant putting all of the privacy settings in one place on their website and in their phone app. They also reduced the level of access applications have to user data and ended certain types of targeted advertising.
Perhaps most important in informing the public of the seriousness of the problem, Facebook disclosed information about the identities of some of their advertisers. That included revealing that some political ads in the U.S. had been paid for by Russian-linked entities that may have been part of that country’s propaganda outlet.
While the Cambridge Analytica scandal appeared to have a significant impact on Facebook’s user base and on their pockets, one aspect of the scandal that largely went overlooked is the effect it had on the company internally.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that companies as large as Facebook, which has over 30,000 employees, aren’t monolithic. Many of the people who worked for the company found out about the problems with Cambridge Analytica at the same time the general public did.
Of course, it’s a lot different for you to find out a company is doing something wrong when you’re an employee versus when you are a customer. There were a lot of people who deleted their Facebook accounts over the scandal and similarly, there were employees who weren’t happy to be working on the core Facebook product anymore.
Thankfully for those highly skilled tech people, there were some options. Some transferred to the company’s Instagram or WhatsApp divisions citing ethical concerns. But at least one employee, Westin Lohne, quit outright. “Morally, it was extremely difficult to continue working here,” the designer said.
Keep It Private
If there’s one lesson to be learned from the scandal, it’s this: Be careful what information you put on the Internet and don’t trust everything you see. The generation of people who knew life before Facebook know this all too well, the advice is more for those who don’t know the world without it.