Editorial | Brave new world of Facebook data

Editorial | Brave new world of Facebook data

The recently reported data breach shows users' online behavior may be revealing too much.

How private are your thoughts and opinions? It depends.

For anyone who spends time the internet — whether searching on Google, ordering gifts on Amazon or "liking" a Facebook friend's vacation pictures — there's little privacy and little control over how collected data is used.

Market researchers have been collecting data on consumers for years, with the goal of getting people to buy more jars of Moma's tomato sauce or switching brands of dog food. While it's disquieting that researchers are correlating our emotions to our choice of toothpaste, it is not as invasive as what has been happening to Facebook users.

According to reports over the last two weeks from the New York Times and the U.K.'s Observer, a British company called Cambridge Analytica collected data from 50 million Facebook users in an effort to sway voters on the behalf of political clients. This same company also worked for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. How Cambridge Analytica came into possession of such a trove of data is quite a detective story, driven by revelations from whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica contractor.

The entire story raises two legitimate worries.

First, if one company could find a way to scrape massive amounts of data from Facebook, maybe other entities have done the same thing.

According to news reports, the Cambridge Analytica caper began with a psychology researcher who designed a Facebook survey to collect data on psychological traits. What started with 270,000 willing participants led to data on some 50 million users — data that Cambridge Analytica could use to connect people with places and other personal info and build so-called psychographic profiles. If one survey conducted nearly four years ago could yield that much information, couldn't there be similar collections out there?

Second, it appears the purpose for collecting such extensive detail was to manipulate voters into favoring particular candidates or issues, such as Brexit. If this sounds like "Brave New World," perhaps we're seeing the 21st century version of it.

Research indicates one's hobbies, interests or other personal attributes can indicate political affiliation. According to whistleblower Wylie, Cambridge Analytica did more than make political predictions with all its data. The company — exploiting users' heavy reliance on social media for news — surrounded voters with selected information. The firm, Wylie said, "took fake news to the next level."

"This is based on an idea called 'informational dominance,' which is the idea that if you can capture every channel of information around a person and then inject content around them, you can change their perception of what's actually happening," Wylie said last week on the "Today" show. In fairness, there is no evidence that such a disinformation campaign has been conducted.

But there is a reasonable response to this second worry: Don't use social media for news. The original idea behind Facebook was to connect people. It has never been the repository of all carefully reported news and information.

Voters would be wise to get their news from organizations that have specialized in that work for decades — local newspapers and broadcast outlets. All of them — including The News-Gazette — invest millions of dollars a year in newsgathering. Each is held accountable, both internally and externally. Newspapers offer an added bonus: We give our readers room to disagree with us, in the form of letters.

The other response to disinformation: the daily exercise of free will. The only way a cocoon of distortion can envelope anyone is if that person allows it.


Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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JohnRalphio wrote on March 29, 2018 at 7:03 pm

There are actually LOTS of good reasons to think Cambridge Analytica was using disinformation to sway voters in favor of Trump.

And the News-Gazette's notion that people can avoid disinformation by not using Facebook "for news" is cutely naive.

We should be far more outraged, and pushing for stricter laws governing the privacy of our data, rather than trying to put a band-aid on the problem at the level of individual choices.