March 23

Why Everybody Is Mad at Facebook

All week long we’ve been hearing about outrage surrounding Facebook and a company called Cambridge Analytica. Here’s a cheat sheet to why everyone’s mad… and what we can do from here on out.

YO, YO, YO…. by the way… there is ZERO political commentary in this post. Nothing. Nada. This is just about the issues surrounding Facebook’s hot water. We ain’t gonna go there here. :)

When the Problem Started

  • In 2013, a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality quiz and paid almost 250k people on Amazon Mechanical Turk a couple bucks a pop to take it through their Facebook accounts.
  • Because of the way Facebook worked back then, the personality test accessed not only the test-takers’ profiles but the profiles of all their Facebook friends, translating to access to tens of millions of Facebook users’ profiles.
  • Ethical and common practice in survey taking is to anonymize and aggregate the data, and the researchers said that’s what they were doing. But they were actually creating individual profiles of each of the millions of accounts.

What the Profiles Revealed

  • Aleksandr Kogan worked with a colleague named Michal Kosinski at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre. Kosinski had worked on a personality tool that used the likes and personal info shared on Facebook to assign a personality to that person.
  • Kosinski’s research showed that what you like on Facebook reveals your personality better than any self-reported personality test. Ten likes will help the computer know you better than a work colleague. Seventy likes and the analytics understand you better than a friend… 150 for your parents and 300 for your partner.
  • Kosinski converted the data points into the five dimensions of personality, known as the “Big Five:” openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

What Cambridge Analytica Did with the Profiles

  • Kosinski wouldn’t sell his data, but Aleksandr Kogan used Kosinski’s model to create his own personality quiz and sold the data to a company that later became Cambridge Analytica.
  • Cambridge Analytica bills itself as a political research firm. In 2016, its CEO, Alexander Nix, gave a speech where he claimed that, “We were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.”
  • The personality profiles were used for highly, highly targeted advertising during the presidential election. Cambridge Analytica also created an app for door-to-door campaigners, which would tell the canvassers the political views of every house and included guidelines for conversations specific to the residents’ personality types.
  • Other candidates were profiling potential voters as well and assigning personality types, but Cambridge Analytica’s massive dataset and data-gathering method went beyond any existing profile technique.

Why Are We Talking about This Now?

  • Facebook started scaling back the amount of data that third-party apps could collect in 2014 and made more of your profiles private by default in 2015 after more of Kosinski’s results were published.
  • In 2015, Facebook found out that Kogan had sold the data with Cambridge Analytica. And Facebook made Cambridge Analytica promise that they deleted the data. They said they did.
  • Last week reporters revealed that Cambridge Analytica might not have deleted the data (surprise, surprise). Again, they said they did. Facebook is going to audit Cambridge Analytica’s data.
  • NOTE: The big bad thing about this incident is that Kogan was supposed to keep the data anonymous and wasn’t supposed to sell it. But the info he accessed as an academic researcher was fully available under Facebook’s policy at the time. Another point of  contention was that Facebook knew about this years ago and didn’t inform anyone… and even threatened to sue journalists who were writing about it.

What Facebook Is Doing Now

  • Mark Zuckerberg wrote a post.
  • Facebook says it’s taking responsibility for allowing third-party apps to pull personally identifiable info from you and your connections.
  • They’re going to go back through their records to see which third-party apps used the open system to collect information before Facebook locked down some privacy controls in 2014.
  • They will reduce third-party apps’ access to your data.
  • They will help you understand which third-party apps have access to your Facebook data by adding notifications in your News Feed. This info is already available in your privacy settings.
  • Although I haven’t seen it directly from Facebook, I’ve heard that they’re also going to notify you if your personal data has been involved in this kind of incident.

What You Can Do Now

  • Update Your Facebook Privacy Settings
    The data in this particular incident was captured four years ago, so we can’t unring the bell at this point. But we can lock down our privacy settings on Facebook and other social media sites to limit the amount of info that the platforms allow to be passed to others.Here’s Wired’s article: The Complete Guide to Facebook PrivacyBUT… and this is a huge BUT, you should understand that your online profiles are full of the most valuable information every collected for marketers and political pollsters and anyone who wants to sell you something or convince you to do something. We can limit the legitimate pathways, but the only way to prevent that information from ever getting out is to not put it out there. There will be breaches, misuses, invasions, accessing and general scooping up of that data.
  • See Who Facebook Thinks You Are
    Remember The Psychometrics Centre and Michal Kosenski? They created a site called Apply Magic Sauce that will let you run the same analytics on your Facebook and Twitter profiles. You can see exactly the kind of info that Cambridge Analytica had about you. Here’s the funny thing… the profiles can be way, way off. My analysis says I’m likely a 33-year-old unmarried man.
  • Take the Privacy Paradox Challenge
    I have recommended this before… The Note to Self podcast created a five-day plan to “take back your digital identity.” The steps will help you become aware of the types of private info you’re sharing and what to do to protect yourself.
  • Delete Facebook
    You can delete Facebook, but chances are you’re just as wrapped around Facebook as most of us. We’ve used it to log into lots of different sites. We have all our pictures there. All of our friends are there. We shoot messages to each other through there. We invite people to parties there. We participate in professional and personal groups there. Facebook is a part of our lives.Here’s how to delete Facebook.
    And here’s how to replace the Facebook features you may miss (news, messaging, birthday notifications, etc).

    But here’s a quote from Vox about why it’s so hard to delete Facebook

At this point, “Why don’t you just delete Facebook” is the internet’s equivalent of asking, “Why didn’t they just leave before the hurricane came” — because it vastly misrepresents how embedded Facebook is at every cultural turn most of us take, and deflects social responsibility away from Facebook onto the users who have been directly impacted by the company’s lack of accountability.



privacy, social media

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  • It couldn’t decide if I was male or female, but it did shave 20 years off me! :) It was 99% sure I wasn’t Lesbian though….LOL. Thanks for this!

  • I just went to the Apply Magic Sauce link and looked at my personality profile based on my Facebook likes. WOW! They pretty much nailed me!

  • Go back and check Obama’s two presidential campaigns that used social media data.

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