Modern political landscapes are witnessing rapid polarization due to the proliferation of issues significant to growth, culture, and identity of masses. Many examples include a rise in popularity of neo-fascist and right-wing ideologies in Europe and USA, increasing support for traditionalistic ideologies in India and even ‘Brexit’ due to issues such as immigration, refugee crises, increasing wealth inequality and dynamic cultural outlook of people. This increasing complexity of political stances among individuals is rendering conventional election PR machinery obsolete and despite sounding like an unusual pair, data science and strategic communication are giving birth to highly unconventional and supposedly revolutionary ways to influence, motivate and sway people. Although, the effectiveness and ethics of these practices are still ambiguous.
Recent exposure of Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has unveiled these unconventional big data-driven practices that seek to change audience behavior based on personal profiling and targeting of individuals on a massive scale. Applications and significance of terms like data mining, data analysis, and data brokerage are necessary to understand in order to unravel this Facebook fiasco. Here, we take a closer look at these methods and analyze the ethics and fairness of data brokerage.
Political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) claims to ‘change audience behavior’ through ‘data-driven methods’. Further, the specific techniques used to accomplish this task include data mining, data analysis, data brokerage and strategic communication. Although the effectiveness of methods that the company uses are still highly disputable, recent exposure has triggered a conversation about data security among people. CA was able to obtain information of about 50 million people from Facebook using ethically disputable methods . The information was sourced from a web app whose aim was to collect the profile information of its users as well as their Facebook friends. This raw data was further extrapolated using data analysis and mining to form user profiles that were used for targeting individuals and appeal to their political stances. Strategic communication with the help of social media powered by this information heap was advertised as a highly successful campaigning strategy. Even though it is claimed that this information was not utilized in any major campaign including Trump campaign, such practices are concerning due to a variety of reasons. However, not including any concerns about security breaches but rather the responsibility of corporations and tech companies to protect their users.
Contrary to the popular belief, this was not an incident of a security breach on the behalf of Facebook. Targeted users shared their information when they accepted the terms and conditions of the application. However, according to the Facebook terms, this information was to be used only for educational purposes; in spite of these rules, CA directly funded the independent researcher who created this app and gathered information for them. This leads to the question of responsibility of companies, which sell user data for commercial purposes, in protecting them from such serious exploitation. Mark Zuckerberg was quick in apologizing for Facebook's fault in allowing applications with intent to exploit the users and vowed increased efforts in augmenting user security and taking more responsibility. Further, he apologized for hiding this information from users despite having all the facts from as early as 2014. However, this could not prevent Facebook’s shares from taking a steep dive.
This is not the sole case of irresponsible behavior from Facebook, reports after American presidential election exposed evidence of fake news being spread on Facebook with origins in Russia. Further, this was coupled with selective news sharing by Facebook’s algorithms depending upon user bias, thus, influencing and reinforcing opinions of people. So, it was decided that certain steps must be taken in order to make elections as fair as possible. Still, the prospect of mining of personal user data along with misuse of social media platforms makes for a disturbing reality.
Facebook is not the only tech company functioning on user data. Google makes most of its revenue based on an advertisement program where user information is used to target users with suitable ads. Despite accusations related to data mining and personal profiling on these companies, little oversight is given to governments and people on the scale of their operation. Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies remain highly profitable due to a huge database and the user information they obtain. Continued expansion solidifies their interests as the number of users expand and rely on their services. Hence, in the ideal case, these companies should take steps to ensure fairness and ethical use of their platforms.
Cambridge Analytica scandal, despite being small compared to the scale of operation of these companies, raises vital questions, whose answers will sketch the future direction of data science. It is the responsibility of engineers and data scientists to ensure that data is obtained fairly and the big corporations use this data wisely for the benefit of the public. For instance, the data mining that can lead to unfair elections and information wars can be used as a force to understand human behavior and for the benefit of our species. Perspective and intent can make the difference in deciding the future applications of this unbelievably powerful tool.
In a recent interview, Mark Zuckerberg quoted “We don't deserve users' data if we can't protect it”  highlighting the importance of data security, as it has become one of the most precious resources in the modern world.