Over the past few days, the Cambridge Analytica/ Facebook fallout scandal has rocked the world with a whistleblower coming forward to admit that millions of Facebook usersâ€™ data was illegally obtained and used to influence elections in several countries.
The story was first broken by an investigation by the Observer and Guardian(sister) newspapers in the UK when 28 year-old Christopher Wylie, the man whose idea it was to develop a â€˜psychological warfare toolâ€™ to influence voter trends, admitted that his former employer and Facebook were complicit in harvesting the Facebook profiles of 50 million unsuspecting users without their knowledge or consent.
This was followed up with a documentary revelation by Channel 4 News where Alexander Nix, the CEO of the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica explains to a potential client the illegal and unethical means by which they would spread fake news, misinformation and â€˜dirtâ€™ on political enemies to get their client elected to office. The New York Times reported that the raw data was still available online, some of which the paper had seen.
What does this mean?
The data was allegedly obtained by CA with the help of Dr Aleksandr Koganâ€™s personality quiz wherein 3,20, 000 Facebook users who took the quiz unwittingly granted access to not just their profiles, but also 160(each) of their friendsâ€™.
Basic profile details(age, gender, location, etc.) combined with Facebook activities such as liking, reacting, sharing, commenting, etc. became large data sets that, through algorithms, revealed psychological patterns of users.
For example, if you are a fan of an actor or politician and like their Facebook page or frequently share their posts, you have added your tiny bit to the large data set. Hundreds of users of your demographic are then targeted with subtle messaging on the actor's politics, their political party, in the run up to elections. If their opponent wishes, then it can influence the minds of their followers by spreading fake news and misinformation about them by using the psychological profile they have built.
This, in turn, was reportedly exploited by CA for politically motivated messaging through the spread of fake news, misinformation and â€˜dirtâ€™ on political opponents.
The investigation hopes to answer: through what means CA obtained this data, the scale of the dataâ€™s subsequent usage, why didnâ€™t Facebook clamp down on the theft of their usersâ€™ data and how/ why it turned a blind eye to the issue as far back as 2014.
What can you do?
Even as mudslinging on which Indian national party used the services of Ovleno Business Intelligence,(the Indian arm of CAâ€™s parent company) continues, Facebook users can restrict third party apps and â€˜apps others useâ€™ on their accounts on the app settings page on Facebook. While basic profile data will still be available, perhaps forever, these steps will ensure that no quiz/ game/ external app hands over your data to third parties. If you still donâ€™t feel safe, consider deleting the Facebook app on your phone or deleting your account altogether.