The Cambridge Analytica scandal was an inevitable consequence of human egotism
In Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2003, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg created an online programme called ‘Facemash’, which allowed users to compare photos of fellow students’ faces and select the one they found more attractive.
The programme spread quickly amongst his peers at the university, for exactly the same reasons that Q&A social networks such as ask.fm or Curious Cat have become so popular: people love to know what other people think about them.
Whilst Zuckerberg was nearly expelled altogether and faced punishment from Harvard administration for his objectifying tool, this early programme provided the framework for what would later become Facebook.
It was a means by which people could stamp their seal of approval on others, ‘liking’ someone’s face would later translate to other popularity metrics such as your number of Facebook friends, likes on a profile photo or posts on a timeline for your birthday.
Fast forward to 2018, where the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent and used this data to try and influence the outcome of political campaigns such as the 2016 US presidential election, as well as the Leave.EU campaign in the UK.
How did they do this? Data was collected using a one click personality test quiz app on Facebook, created by the University of Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan. Those that completed the quiz made their entire friendship network’s personal data vulnerable to data-mining.
All this data was then used to create a personality map of the US. Because personality drives behaviour, these data profiles were used to predict how individuals would vote in an election or referendum.
But why did people click on this personality test? Well, why do people do anything online?
Just look at the recent FaceApp saga. The app first went viral in 2017 but resurfaced again recently as a result of the FaceApp challenge in which celebs posted photos with the old-age filter applied, leading to a copy-cat response from their fans and other social media users.
Users started deleting the software in a panic after a developer called Joshua Nozzi tweeted that the app could be taking all the photos from your phone and uploading them to its servers without permission from the user, and other international news sources reported that the app was a Russian data-mining scheme.
A French cyber expert called Baptiste Robert subsequently clarified that FaceApp only transferred submitted photos (ones that the user wants the software to transform) to company servers. So really, it was all a big fuss over nothing, but if it had been an actual data-mining scam it would have occurred because people are vain, and they wanted to fit in through being seen to have participated in the challenge.
As well as probably procrastinating from something far more important, people take personality quizzes because they want to share their results with friends, and figure out how they fit into the social group.
Similarly, people don’t complete Buzzfeed ‘Which Harry Potter character are you?’ quizzes because they genuinely want to know which character they are the most comparable to. As well as probably procrastinating from something far more important, people take personality quizzes because they want to share their results with friends, and figure out how they fit into the social group.
The same principle applies to those who completed the personality quiz on Facebook that made their own and their friends data susceptible to data-mining by Cambridge Analytica: they did it because humans are vain.
In the recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack, Cambridge Analytica employees talk about how they used this data to target the ‘persuadables’, individuals in swing seats who could be encouraged to shift to one side of the political spectrum with conservative propaganda such as ‘Crooked Hillary’ advertisements.
The documentary has been hailed as ‘one of 2019’s best horror films’ and ‘a must-see film for anyone who uses social media and cares about democracy’.
It does indeed have some important political takeaways. As the 2016 US presidential election, as well as the Brexit referendum in the UK showed, democracy is now a matter of very tight margins.
But the documentary missed a trick in failing to highlight the sociological truths that underpin the ongoing debates about social media regulation, data rights and modern advertising and media.
Whether you believe that Cambridge Analytica were able to hit these ‘persuadables’ with enough targeted content to swing the US presidential race in favour of Donald Trump, or instead you are sceptical about the firm’s influence or perhaps even questioning the existence of these ‘persuadables’ in the first place, I am sure you would agree with the statements ‘I have, at times, been vain or egotistical’ and ‘I have, at times, wanted to fit in’.
It is the human desire to find out what other people think of us and to belong to a group that underpins why social media is such a massive part of our technologically connected lives. We are a vain, egotistical race. It might be an obvious statement, but it’s a vitally important one.
It is down to us as social media users to ensure we do not fall victim to the myth of Narcissus, and allow our love of our own reflections be our collective downfall
As the technology sector surges forward and governments grapple with how to legislate and keep social media platforms in check, it is down to us as social media users to ensure we do not fall victim to the myth of Narcissus, and allow our love of our own reflections be our collective downfall.
What do you think — have you ever clicked on something out of a desire to show others what results you got?