Why the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Is a Watershed Moment for Social Media

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    “We’re experiencing a watershed moment with regard to social media,” said Aral. “People are now beginning to realize that social media is not just either a fun plaything or a nuisance. It can have potentially real consequences in society.”

    The Cambridge Analytica scandal underscores how little consumers know about the potential uses of their data, according to Berman. He recalled a scene in the film Minority Report where Tom Cruise enters a mall and sees holograms of personally targeted ads. “Online advertising today has reached about the same level of sophistication, in terms of targeting, and also some level of prediction,” he said. “It’s not only that the advertiser can tell what you bought in the past, but also what you may be looking to buy.”

    Consumers are partially aware of that because they often see ads that show them products they have browsed, or websites they have visited, and these ads “chase them,” Berman said. “What consumers may be unaware of is how the advertiser determines what they’re looking to buy, and the Cambridge Analytica exposé shows a tiny part of this world.”

    A research paper that Nave recently co-authored captures the potential impact of the kind of work Cambridge Analytica did for the Trump campaign. “On the one hand, this form of psychological mass persuasion could be used to help people make better decisions and lead healthier and happier lives,” it stated. “On the other hand, it could be used to covertly exploit weaknesses in their character and persuade them to take action against their own best interest, highlighting the potential need for policy interventions.”

    Nave said the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposes exactly those types of risks, even as they existed before the internet era. “Propaganda is not a new invention, and neither is targeted messaging in marketing,” he said. “What this scandal demonstrates, however, is that our online behavior exposes a lot about our personality, fears and weaknesses – and that this information can be used for influencing our behavior.”

    In Golbeck’s research projects involving the use of algorithms, she found that people “are really shocked that we’re able to get these insights like what your personality traits are, what your political preferences are, how influenced you can be, and how much of that data we’re able to harvest.”

    Even more shocking, perhaps, is how easy it is to find the data. “Any app on Facebook can pull the kind of data that Cambridge Analytica did – they can [do so] for all of your data and the data of all your friends,” said Golbeck. “Even if you don’t install any apps, if your friends use apps, those apps can pull your data, and then once they have that [information] they can get these extremely deep, intimate insights using artificial intelligence, about how to influence you, how to change your behavior.” But she draws a line there: “It’s one thing if that’s to get you to buy a pair of shoes; it’s another thing if it’s to change the outcome of an election.”

    “Facebook has tried to play both sides of [the issue],” said Golbeck. She recalled a study by scientists from Facebook and the University of California, San Diego, that claimed social media networks could have “a measurable if limited influence on voter turnout,” as The New York Times reported. “On one hand, they claim that they can have a big influence; on the other hand they want to say ‘No, no, we haven’t had any impact on this.’ So they are going to have a really tough act to play here, to actually justify what they’re claiming on both sides.”

    Golbeck called for ways to codify how researchers could ethically go about their work using social media data, “and give people some of those rights in a broader space that they don’t have now.” Aral expected the solution to emerge in the form of “a middle ground where we learn to use these technologies ethically in order to enhance our society, our access to information, our ability to cooperate and coordinate with one another, and our ability to spread positive social change in the world.” At the same time, he advocated tightening use requirements for the data, and bringing back “the notion of informed consent and consent in a meaningful way, so that we can realize the promise of social media while avoiding the peril.”

    Historically, marketers could collect individual data, but with social platforms, they can now also collect data about a user’s social contacts, said Berman. “These social contacts never gave permission explicitly for this information to be collected,” he added. “Consumers need to realize that by following someone or connecting to someone on social media, they also expose themselves to marketers who target the followed individual.”

    In terms of safeguards, Berman said it is hard to know in advance what a company will do with the data it collects. “If they use it for normal advertising, say toothpaste, that may be legitimate, and if they use it for political advertising, as in elections, that may be illegitimate. But the data itself is the same data.”

    According to Berman, most consumers, for example, don’t know that loyalty cards are used to track their behavior and that the data is sold to marketers. Would they stop using these cards if they knew? “I am not sure,” he said. “Research shows that people in surveys say they want to maintain their privacy rights, but when asked how much they’re willing to give up in customer experience – or to pay for it – the result is not too much. In other words, there’s a difference between how we care about privacy as an idea, and how much we’re willing to give up to maintain it.”

    Golbeck said tools exist for users to limit the amount of data they let reside on social media platforms, including one called Facebook Timeline Cleaner, and a “tweet delete” feature on Twitter. _ “One way that you can make yourself less susceptible to some of this kind of targeting is to keep less data there, delete stuff more regularly, and treat it as an ephemeral platform, _ ” she said.

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