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In April, when the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington, it looked as if the nation was finally going to reckon with the outsize role that technology companies now play in American elections. Seventeen months had gone by since Donald Trump’s stunning presidential victory—a success credited by many to his campaign’s mastery of Facebook’s advertising platform, as well as to the divisive agitprop seeded throughout Facebook by Russian trolls from the Internet Research Agency, whose 470 pages and accounts were seen by an estimated 157 million Americans.
But that was not what brought Zuckerberg to the Capitol. Instead, he was there to diffuse the bomb dropped three weeks earlier by Christopher Wylie, former research director at Cambridge Analytica, the data science firm that Trump’s digital team had employed during the election campaign. In interviews with The Guardian and The New York Times, Wylie confirmed that his company had taken data from millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent—as many as 87 million users, he later revealed. Cambridge Analytica had used the information to identify Americans’ subconscious biases and craft political messages designed to trigger their anxieties and thereby influence their political decisions—recasting a marketing technique known as “psychographics” that, more typically, is used to entice retail customers with ads that spark their underlying emotional reflexes. (“This product will make you feel happy!” “This product will make you feel attractive!”)
Cambridge Analytica turned this technique sideways, with messaging that exploited people’s vulnerabilities and psychological proclivities. Those with authoritarian sympathies might have received messages about gun rights or Trump’s desire to build a border wall. The overly anxious and insecure might have been pitched Facebook ads and emails talking about Hillary Clinton’s support for sanctuary cities and how they harbor undocumented and violent immigrants. Alexander Nix, who served as CEO of Cambridge Analytica until March, had earlier called this method of psychological arousal the data firm’s “secret sauce.”
(Cadwalladr also connected Cambridge Analytica to the Brexit campaign, through a Canadian data firm that worked both for the Vote Leave campaign and for Cambridge Analytica itself.) When he finally went public, Wylie explained how, with financial support from right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica’s principal investor, and with Steve Bannon’s guidance, he had built the algorithms and models that would target the innate biases of American voters. (Ted Cruz was one of Cambridge Analytica’s first clients and was Mercer’s preferred presidential candidate in the primaries before Trump crushed him.) In so doing, Wylie told Cadwalladr, “We ‘broke’ Facebook.”
So Zuckerberg agreed to come to Washington to be questioned by senators about the way his company’s lax privacy policies had inadvertently influenced the U.S. election—and possibly thrown it to Donald Trump.
But what should have been a grilling turned out to be more like a sous vide—slow, gentle, low temperature—as the senators lightly rapped Zuckerberg on his knuckles over Facebook’s various blunders, and he continually reminded them that he’d created the site in his Harvard dorm room, not much more than a decade before, and now look at it! Of course, he reminded them with a kind of earnest contrition, there were going to be bumps in the road, growing pains, glitches.
A tech executive supporting federal regulation of the internet may, at first, seem like a big deal. “I’m not the type of person that thinks all regulation is bad,” Zuckerberg told the senators. “I think the internet is becoming increasingly important in people’s lives, and I think we need to have a full conversation about what is the right regulation, not whether it should be or shouldn’t be.”
Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony was the culmination of an extensive apology tour in which he gave penitent interviews to The New York Times, Wired, Vox, and more, acknowledging that mistakes had been made. “This was a major breach of trust,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really sorry that this happened.” A month later, Facebook launched a major ad campaign, vowing, “From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy.” Then, in mid-May, Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy, though this did not put an end to the whole affair. A legal challenge to the company by American professor David Carroll for processing his voter data without his knowledge or consent has been allowed to continue in the U.K., despite the firm’s dissolution.
If anything, the digital arms race is accelerating, spurred by advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as technologists working both sides of the political aisle develop ever-more-powerful tools to parse, analyze, and beguile the electorate. Lawmakers in Congress may have called Mark Zuckerberg to account for Facebook’s lax protection of its users’ data.
But larger and more enduring questions remain about how personal data continues to be collected and used to game not just the system, but ourselves as sovereign individuals and citizens.