“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic,” Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House in late 2016. “Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
Speaking at a technology event a day earlier — two days after Trump’s surprise victory — Zuckerberg opined: “The idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”
Fast forward 16 months, and Zuckerberg might not be so dismissive of the potential impact fake news and misinformation can have on public opinion — if we actually knew where Zuck was.
It’s been some two days since reports emerged that Facebook data had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica, with 28-year-old whistleblower Christopher Wylie going on-record to reveal how the company used Facebook profile data of 50 million people to influence the outcome of the U.S. election. This seemingly confirmed reports from last year that suggested that Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data back in 2014, though it claimed — and still claims — to have deleted the data in 2015.
A related investigation by U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 also revealed how Cambridge Analytica sold itself as a propagator of propaganda. The managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, detailed how they would acquire “damaging material” on opponents and push it out into the internet ether. “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … like a remote control,” Turnbull said. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”
Facebook has been riddled with controversy almost since its inception, but things have cranked up a notch over the past 18 months, with Russian’s influence on the U.S. election a key area of focus. The spread of so-called “fake news” has been cited by many as playing a major factor not only in Trump’s rise to power, but the outcome of the U.K. referendum vote to leave the European Union a few months previous.
Related to the latest installment, Facebook has issued a number of statements on the growing controversy, though Zuckerberg so far has kept quiet on the matter. But it’s unlikely he will be able to hide forever given the fury this latest episode has evoked.
Yesterday, news emerged that U.K. authorities were seeking a warrant to search offices belonging to Cambridge Analytica. Today, Zuckerberg was personally summoned by the U.K. House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee to provide evidence on the latest developments in the Cambridge Analytica case.
“The Committee has repeatedly asked Facebook about how companies acquire and hold on to user data from their site, and in particular about whether data had been taken without their consent,” said MP Damian Collins in an open letter published by the DCMS. “Your officials’ answers have consistently understated this risk, and have been misleading to the Committee. It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process.”
Elsewhere today, news emerged that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating whether Facebook has violated a 2011 consent decree that stipulated the company must ensure that it gives consumers “clear and prominent notice” and obtain “consumers’ express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established.”
“Facebook is obligated to keep the promises about privacy that it makes to its hundreds of millions of users,” noted FTC chair Jon Leibowitz in 2011. “Facebook’s innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy. The FTC action will ensure it will not.”
Seven years ago, Facebook was charged with compromising its users’ privacy. And it could be that not much has changed in the years since.