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Sun Mar 25, 2018, 08:13 AM

Facebooks week of shame: the Cambridge Analytica fallout

Mark Zuckerberg kept his silence – then did little to assuage the anger in a week that laid bare the worst of Silicon Valley

Every story has a beginning. For me, the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that has unfolded so spectacularly this past week began in a cafe in Holloway, north London, at the beginning of 2017.

I was having a coffee with my colleague Carole Cadwalladr. She had recently written a series of articles that set out how certain Google search terms had been “hijacked by the alt-right”. In the course of that investigation she explained how she had come across another pattern of activity apparently linking the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns, one that appeared to involve the billionaire Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon – then of Breitbart – and a secretive British company called Cambridge Analytica. She laid out the elements of what she knew, and what she didn’t, testing her conviction that “there’s definitely something there”.


In a way, that was only the warm-up act of the story. Nix’s unwitting confessions were in marked contrast to the silence from Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. All anyone knew of Facebook’s response on Monday was that it had a swat team of data analysts working overnight at Cambridge Analytica’s offices – though that same data remained out of bounds for the government’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who was trying in vain to get a warrant to access files before they were potentially compromised. Zuckerberg declined to face his own employees at a meeting on Tuesday, while again a press statement from his PR team suggested that “the entire company is outraged we were deceived”. The continued silence seemed to tell another story, however, not least to Wall Street; in those two days nearly $60bn was wiped off the Facebook market capitalisation, and #whereszuck became a top-trending social media meme. As the silence persisted, a little of Zuckerberg’s public relations dilemma became clear. The original legal threat to the Observer was over the question of whether the 50 million profiles handed first to the Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and then sold on to Cambridge Analytica constituted a data breach. Facebook insisted that it did not, but that insistence itself amounted to a public acknowledgement of a business model that appeared to allow the unauthorised sale of private data.

When Zuckerberg did eventually come out to try to explain this, his crafted statement was another effort to make the exploitation of the 50 million profiles seem like a technical problem, a glitch. His tone was the default position of T-shirted Silicon Valley plutocrats who insist that they are on our side, while squirrelling away their billions. What had happened was not a data breach “but a breach of trust”, he suggested, a sentiment he repeats in a personal advertisement in today’s newspapers, including the Observer.

This appeal to Facebook users’ faith in its better nature recalled an infamous recorded exchange from the early days of Facebook at Harvard, when Zuckerberg was in conversation with a friend.

Zuck: “Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard, just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS.”

Friend: “What? How’d you manage that one?”

Zuck: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me’. Dumb fucks!”


Last week even the Economist was persuaded of the need for Facebook in particular to make radical changes to its data practices, or for governments to call time on its model. “If Facebook ends up as a regulated utility with its returns on capital capped, its earnings may drop by 80%. How would you like that, Mr Zuckerberg?”. When faced with the often anonymised global entity of the internet, it has been easy to buy the argument that the forces at work in it are too opaque and complex to hold to account. What the Cambridge Analytica revelations bring to light – through old-fashioned journalistic persistence – is that those forces are, in fact, open to the same kinds of manipulation and corruption that any media needs protection from, but on a far greater scale. The story has given the growing unease about the unaccountable empire-building of Silicon Valley tech companies an all-too-human set of faces. It may not be a pretty sight, but it is not one that will be easily forgotten.

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