Facebook hit by allegations its data was used for politics

A very British scandal: How Facebook data was sold to a political consultancy that boasts it brought Donald Trump to power

Data harvested through an app on Facebook in 2014 was allegedly used by a consultancy firm to target voters in elections. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg
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Why is Facebook embroiled in a controversy over the use of data by a British political consultancy?

The origins of the allegations are that a British-based academic set up an app to run psychology tests on Facebook subscribers who agreed to take its survey. As was allowed by the Facebook terms and conditions at the time, the app harvested details of the 270,000 people who signed up, plus those of their contacts and online friends. The details of an estimated 50 million were gathered in this way.

What happened to this information?

A whistleblower has claimed that the company running the tests sold this information to Cambridge Analytica which was then able to use the information for political targeting. Facebook says this action breached its policies by passing on the information to a third party. The California-based firm has said that it discovered the rules were broken in 2015 and asked both companies to delete the data.

Did this deletion happen?

Cambridge Analytica informed Facebook that it had complied with the request. However the firm has engaged a digital forensic firm to audit Cambridge Analytica to determine if the Facebook data in question still exists. This investigator was ordered to cease its work on the Cambridge Analytica systems on Monday night when the British regulator said it would go to the courts to gain its own access to the systems as part of an official inquiry. "If this data still exists, it would be a grave violation of Facebook's policies and an unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments these groups made," the social media giant said. It added Aleksandr Kogan, who created the personality app from which the data had been harvested, has agreed to be audited.

Was the information used to help elect Donald Trump or boost the British vote to leave the EU?

Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower, said the company tested some of Donald Trump’s main political themes well before the US primary season began. The firm, which is financially backed by the US tycoon Robert Mercer, initially worked on the campaign of Ted Cruz, the Texas senator. When he was defeated in the Republican primary by Mr Trump, it switched to the businessman’s campaign. The US Federal Election Commission said Cambridge Analytica was paid $5.9 million for its work on the Trump campaign. Members of the Leave.eu campaign said that Cambridge Analytica pitched for business during the run-up to the UK’s 2016 referendum on withdrawing from the EU.

What has this got to do with allegations of dirty tricks in elections elsewhere?

While its origins lie in social media marketing campaigns, Cambridge Analytica’s political consultancy has grown rapidly to work on elections across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. A separate filmed undercover sting by a British news channel has seen senior executives boast of leading roles in campaigns in Kenya, Argentina, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. At one point the head of the firm boasts that it used entrapment to destroy the careers of rival politicians. Cambridge Analytica said it “entirely refutes” the allegations.


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