Facebook just can’t shake off the sneaking suspicion that somehow it’s responsible for Trump. And there’s a useful heuristic for US predictions: everything Trump touches, dies.

The company has spent almost 18 months grappling (not terribly successfully) with fake news and Russian bots. Now the Cambridge Analytica furore has exploded, blowing off the factory door and letting us all see just how Facebook really makes its sausages (hint: you’re the mince!).

Privacy concerns have sparked the #DeleteFacebook band-wagon with prominent tech evangelists from Elon Musk to WhatsApp founder Jan Koum joining in. The market also seems to think something is not right, pushing the share price down over 20% from its February 1 peak. (Still valued over AU$600 billion.)

The company’s most recent quarterly report, shows average users are flat in developed markets, with growth coming largely from Asia. Average revenue per user is up, even where the numbers are flat. But in techlandia, if you’re not growing, you’re dying (Hello, Google+)

We’ve had plenty of time to get used to the aphorism: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product”. But the Cambridge Analytica story tells us a more uncomfortable truth: we’re not just being sold, we’re being sold to people we wouldn’t want anything to do with.

It’s exposed the fundamental disconnect between what the company says it does (Bring the World Closer Together!) and how it makes money: by selling you to advertisers. In an interview over the weekend, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dismissed this criticism as “glib”, saying the company could be trusted because they were the good guys.

Can Facebook survive or is this its Myspace moment? Bought by News Corp in 2005 for US$580 million, Myspace was, by 2008, the world’s most popular social media site. Then Facebook began to surpass it, and in 2011 News Corp sold it for chump change — US$35 million.

The warning? Nothing is too big to fail. At its peak a decade ago, Myspace was the giant that dominated the emerging social media space. It failed in part because Facebook built a better mousetrap. Facebook has learnt that lesson by buying potential disruptors (WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus Rift).

But Myspace also failed because the simple News Corp purchase changed its brand from a place of community (particularly for musicians), to a brand linked to Fox, with all the corporate and political baggage that involved. Now, Facebook faces the same dilemma, but on a much larger scale: with Trump, in place of Murdoch.

Facebook’s Trump connection came to a head when Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting story went nuclear this year after being revealed by The Observer and The New York Times. But disquiet around Trump’s use of user data had been circulating ever it was first reported on by Swiss-based Das Magazin as early as December 2016, with Vice’s Motherboard picking the story up in January 2017. 

Cambridge Analytica claimed their “secret sauce” had cracked the “psychographic” conundrum, claiming to be able to use Facebook data to reveal not just who we are, but what we are. As whistle-blower Christopher Wylie said: they can find our “inner demons”.

This concept has been floating around academia, with a 2013 paper by Michal Kosinski and others showing that Facebook likes, can be used to “predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.” Phew! All that?

Significantly, the paper said it could distinguish Republicans from Democrats 85% of the time. In response, Facebook made likes private by default.

Later, Kosinski showed that Twitter follows, likes, and retweets could predict personality types within an 85% probability.

By matching Facebook data with other public and private data, Cambridge Analytica claimed to identify not just how people vote, but why. Last week, Facebook announced it would phase out cooperating with companies that meld Facebook and other data.

More disturbing are suggestions that the search for “inner demons” meant mining data for signs a voter was susceptible to racist or nationalist messaging, looking for indicators ranging from racist slur words to likes of American-made cars.

Was this real, or is Cambridge Analytica just good at selling itself? As George Hindman from George Washington University wrote in The Conversation last Friday: “With this model, Cambridge Analytica could say that it was identifying people with low openness to experience and high neuroticism. But the same model, with the exact same predictions for every user, could just as accurately claim to be identifying less educated older Republican men.”

Now Facebook are promising they’ve locked the factory door, but users can’t un-know their role as ingredients in the sausage making process.

Peter Fray

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