In the News - Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I try not to be reactive to or concerned by the news. Primarily because it’s not a good use of my time. Most news is firmly outside my sphere of influence. Also because it is frequently an inaccurate or incomplete story. News outlets can’t not report on an important event no matter the quality of information. I don’t fault journalism for this, it’s built into the nature of the system. Accuracy and contextual significance of events improve over time. So when things like the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook debacle are pushed into the public consciousness, I like to take a step back and wait for more details. I’m not sure I’ve given it quite enough time, but here are some observations.

This is the system working exactly as designed and intended at the time. There was no data breach, this was business as usual. That people don’t like business as usual indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of a number of factors such as a) the business model these companies use, b) the terms of service users opted into behind a wall of legalese that no one ever reads, and c) the sheer quantity of data they have on people and the insights that can be gleaned from it.

The capacity of Cambridge Analytica to influence a significant number of people is exaggerated. From a sales and marketing perspective, they would love to have that kind of power. The name of the company itself is an attempt to market some sort of gravitas and effectiveness. I question how much they have of either. Case in point, if your platform can manufacture significant influence, why would you be caught on tape also suggesting the employment of Ukrainian sex workers for blackmail? If the power of your targeting and suggestion is so weak that you have to employ morally dubious and potentially illegal methods to supplement your core product, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach. This is not to say that their ability to persuade was zero, just that it was likely much less influential than advertised or suggested in the news.

One side of the political sphere is more upset about this than the other. Because of who is in the White House and because politics today is about any excuse to be outraged (left and right alike). Cambridge Analytica was a very small (perhaps insignificant) part of why the 2016 election turned out like it did. The Obama campaign had similar capabilities in the 2012 election. I’m not a fan of our current political climate, but there’s a lot more to be done than blaming one or two companies in a very large and dysfunctional system.

At the time that the massive data set was made available, Facebook was experimenting with it’s business model. It didn’t know what it was doing. If you disagree, I submit as exhibit A the Facebook phone. Exhibits B through every other letter ever invented would be all those obnoxious games like FarmVille, Mob Wars, etc. Now Facebook has more users than any world religion. They know they are an advertising company and they realize the value of data. They aren’t going to make it available in that fashion again. Facebook isn’t selling your information, and they are certainly no longer giving it away. It’s far too valuable for such casual treatment.

There are calls for Facebook to be regulated in some fashion. Facebook has even hinted that they might be open to such a thing. I am very wary of this. Mostly because I don’t know that anyone is clear on what this regulation would look like or what the unintended consequences and second order effects of it would be. On top of this, regulatory capture tends to result in rules that heavily favor the incumbent business. Whatever your definition of incumbent, I’m pretty sure that an organization in the top 10 companies in the world is going to qualify. Facebook might be hurt by some regulation, but it can afford to be hurt in ways that would kill future companies in the same space.

Facebook is an interesting company. I’m not personally a fan but you have to be impressed with what it has done in a short period of time. It has monetized human connection. And it did so through a closed network that users opted into and improved for a number of deep-seated emotional reasons that we are not even cognizant of. That gives them an inordinate amount of power and more information about us than any other organization in the world (with the possible exception of Google). I do not use Facebook often or for much beyond sharing blog posts and hiking photos, but I know they have more accurate insights about me than I would be comfortable with. It should be noted that other companies aren’t any better behaved or morally superior. Twitter would love to be where Facebook is now.

There’s a common refrain in the discussion that goes something like this - “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product”. It’s simplistic and no doubt true in a few cases. With Facebook, it’s more complicated. It may be free, but if you are an average user (or even below average in terms of time spent), you are much more than the product. You are an unpaid content creator that has opted into a surveillance platform predicated on turning your time, attention and psychology into advertising dollars. There have been calls to #DeleteFacebook. It’s a bit late in the game for that and it’s unlikely that a significant number of users will do so. As with all the habitual things we do in our day-to-day, we should be mindful of how we spend our time, energy and attention. Life is too short to idle inside of walled gardens that don’t serve us.