Day 6·Analysis

The overly Social Network: Why the real villain in the Cambridge Analytica story might be Facebook

Forget Cambridge Analytica. Siva Vaidhyanathan says Facebook is the real boogeyman when it comes to spilling data, spreading lies and undermining democracy.
"Facebook can't fix itself because the problem with Facebook is Facebook," says Siva Vaidhyanathan. (Loic Venance/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

Cambridge Analytica can certainly boast of some high powered clients.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. (Patricia De Melo Moreira/Getty Images)

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Bolton and Ben Carson were all invoiced for six or seven figures by the data firm in return for its research.

But Cambridge Analytica wanted more.

In a series of undercover videos released this week, it was caught wooing a potential client , except the client was a journalist posing as a political operative for a foreign government. 

On camera and oblivious, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix is seen boasting of the company's skill in conjuring dirty tricks. It's compelling to watch.

Media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan says when you see the video, Nix comes off as a Bond villain.

It [Facebook] is really a perfect tool for the authoritarian or the nationalist movement or leader to use.- Siva Vaidhyanathan

"He has his British accent and his floppy hair and his glasses and he's been caught undercover scheming up machinations like honey traps," Vaidhyanathan says on Day 6.

And Nix is irresistible as he suggests a sting: a wealthy developer could offer their target a bribe, or maybe they could just "send some girls around to the candidate's house." 

His schemes seem surprisingly low tech for a data company.

Posters depicting Cambridge Analytica's CEO Alexander Nix behind bars, with the slogan "Our Data Not His. Go Straight To Jail." (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images)

"The Cambridge Analytica story is a great spy novel, or spy movie," Vaidhyanathan says. "And now we discover that they've had personal data on more than 50 million American voters. You know, it makes it seem sort of shocking. It's an alarm, right?"

But Vaidhyanathan says there's a threat that's far more alarming, more familiar and convivial. It's already part of our daily lives and might be open on your screen right now. 

It's Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica is no match for it when it comes to issues of transparency and misuse of data.

"If we'd been paying any attention to Facebook, and unfortunately we really haven't, this is standard practice," Vaidhyanathan says.

Anti-Social Media

Vaidhyanathan has been researching Facebook for his upcoming book, Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. He's also a professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and director of their Center for Media and Citizenship.

Vaidhyanathan dismisses Cambridge Analytica's claim that they can use "psychographics" to mess with a voter's intention.

"That's just snake oil," he says.  "There's really no reason to believe that they can effectively address behaviour. "

He says Cambridge Analytica has no weapon comparable to Facebook's ability to use its data to micro-target advertisement to niche interests. 

Everything is dark, everything is below radar.- Siva Vaidhyanathan 

"We know that candidates all over the world are using Facebook in the same ways. Narendra Modi in India was the first to really exploit it successfully. But we've seen Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines use it just as successfully."

"And by the way, those two names should worry us because both of those are ethnic or religious nationalists who are not very wedded to a general sense of liberalism and openness in their societies. And there is a trend there. It's really a perfect tool for the authoritarian, or the nationalist movement, or leader to use," Vaidhyanathan says.

"The Trump campaign straight up said, 'We won because of Facebook.'"

Donald Trump used Cambridge Analytica to help create targeted Facebook ads during his presidential election campaign. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Embedded consultants and no transparency

"Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people," Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale told 60 Minutes last October. "Facebook was going to be how he won."

Vaidhyanathan explains that Facebook embedded consultants with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, but that only one team took full advantage of their knowledge.

Political ads on Facebook are a threat to democracy, says Vaidhyanathan. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

"The Trump campaign decided to actually listen to them and put all of their money in Facebook ads and use their ads to carefully target American voters based on very small discrepancies," Vaidhyanathan says.

Ads found their intended targets at lightning speed, with no way to fact check them, and nobody to hold responsible.

"There is no disclosure for political ads on Facebook the way there is on television and radio," Vaidhyanathan says. "Everything is dark, everything is below radar."

"That limits accountability. It limits discourse. It limits deliberation," Vaidhyanathan says.

He warns it's a true threat to democracy.

"We cannot have a democratic republic in which political communication is increasingly occurring out of sight, where there's no accountability for the speaker."           

There's no precedent

Facebook's power in political campaigns has now evolved into two distinct engines. 

It's likely the world's fastest generator of political ads and it is simultaneously the most powerful platform for delivering political advertising. 

It's all of this while it holds the personal data of billions.

"There's no precedent for that concentration of power before the Reformation," Vaidhyanathan says, adding that its sheer size and power may render Facebook beyond control.

"[The] problem is the very core mission of Facebook and the very core structure of it — the fact that its algorithms promote things that generate strong emotional response," Vaidhyanathan says.

Facebook houses the personal information of millions of users, which third-party groups can use to create targeted ads that rely on strong emotional responses from users to help generate revenue. (Christophe Simon/Getty Images)

They need that response to engage 2.2 billion people and make their profit by "sucking ad revenue away from legitimate sources of information."

"It's a monster that even Facebook can't control," Vaidhyanathan says.

"Facebook can't fix itself because the problem with Facebook is Facebook."