If you are reading this article, it is most likely that you would agree Facebook has become an integral part of our daily lives in the last ten years. We can now stay in touch with our long lost friends, know what's happening in their lives, or meet new people. One thing is clear, after the advent of Facebook our lives have not been the same.
Facebook started out as a social networking site, it evolved into a multifaceted platform. A significant part of Facebook is not only about connecting people. It is also about transforming the way people view content. This content can be delivered either through adverts, videos or blog posts. For many, Facebook has become the primary source of their entertainment and news.
When someone signs up onto Facebook, the user accepts an agreement. This agreement seeks the user's consent to share data in exchange for the service that Facebook provides. After the acceptance of the agreement, Facebook has the discretion over the data of the user, as long as it keeps the data to itself. This data includes personal information, contacts, interests, etc.
Using this data, Facebook started running ads. These ads are established in a cost-effective mode of running targeted advert campaigns in its platform. It caught the attention of small and medium level enterprises, they began using Facebook for marketing their products and services. Such enterprises could apply cutting-edge algorithms developed by Facebook. This was precisely done to target users based on their usage patterns. This model worked because people were comfortable in trusting Facebook with their personal data.
In 2010 Facebook revised its platform policy and invited third-party app developers. This was done to make applications that could be used by the 500 million users it had at that time.
With the changes they made, they seemingly did not realize that they were giving too much away. The third-party app developers now had access to the personal information of both the user and the people in the user's friends list. There is speculation that many applications used this shortcoming. This was mainly done to obtain personal information of millions of users illegally.
In 2014, a Soviet-born researcher Aleksandr Kogan developed an app by the name "This is your Digital life." It was a personality quiz app that could deduce the psychometric profiles of its users. The app was installed and used by only 270,000(approx) Facebook users. Despite this, Kogen was able to collect and store personal information on close to 50 million people on a private server. Later he sold this information to a voter analytics company named Cambridge Analytica.
There are two facets to this story, one side where user privacy was violated. The other side, where there are questions on what the data was used for.
Cambridge Analytica allegedly harvested the user data it got from Kogen. It created psychological profiles of more than 30 million people. It reportedly used this data to influence and turn the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential elections in favor of their clients. These clients are said to have paid them large amounts of money.
Let us look into how it is possible in detail.
The personality traits of a person can be represented using a model known as the OCEAN model. This model is said to contain the information that can define the characteristics of a person. These characteristics or traits are called the Big Five attributes. OCEAN is an acronym that stands for
O => Openness to new experiences
C => Conscientiousness (organised/careless)
E => Extroversion (Outgoing/Reserved)
A => Agreeableness (Friendly/Detached)
N => Neuroticism (Nervous/Confident)
This helps in understanding the nature of the modulation of these traits in an individual. Furthermore, it can help psychologists in assessing the behavioral patterns of a person. It also aids us in answering questions like ‘how comfortable is the individual with strangers?'
This model has its limitations. It requires an individual to fill out a comprehensive questionnaire with a lot of complicated questions. However, with the advent of Facebook and smartphones, more people started to like their way into answering these questions.
In 2008, Michal Kosinski, a doctorate student from Cambridge, started research. In this research, he wanted to check if there was a correlation between the Big-Five attributes of our personality and the way we interact with social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
He created a model, leveraging insights from the data he got from a psychometric quiz app. He could achieve reasonable accuracy in predicting the personality traits of an individual. His model predicted traits with precision, by looking into and analyzing all the type of posts, pages, and events the subject had liked. Over time the model was so refined that with just seventy likes, the model could predict the subjects skin color, sexual orientation, political inclination and religious affiliation.
Cambridge Analytica leveraged this research and coupled it with the data it bought from Kogan and various data brokers. This turned the data into a deadly weapon and helped them to target users by looking into aspects of their personal data like their community, locality, religion, etc. In fact, their marketing campaign was very focused. In a few cases, the sample they targeted was as small as one person.
It is imperative for us to realize what data can do to our lives. We can leverage it to help us in feeding the world, or it can help us in exploiting the insecurities and fears of the masses. Either way, we have to tread with caution in the way we choose to share our data with the world.
Forward to 2018, Cambridge Analytica is being accused of using the information it bought from Kogan to influence and turn what was supposed to be a free and fair democratic process. What they were able to achieve is truly remarkable and extremely scary.
As I conclude I leave you with a thought. There is no doubt that Big Data can help us in solving enormous problems. Yet it is also true that our collective fate depends on what issues we choose to address.
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