Political storm bears down on Facebook amid fallout from Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come under renewed political pressure: Getty
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come under renewed political pressure: Getty

Long after the final votes were cast, Facebook has proven unable to escape the political fallout from its role in the 2016 election.

After a year in which elected officials pivoted from praising the company as a socially beneficial innovator to warning of its capacity for abuse, reports of Cambridge Analytica mining user data to sway an election fuelled a fresh round of reprimands.

For months a glaring political spotlight has focused on how Russian-linked actors took advantage of the platform to spread misinformation and foment social strife, leading to congressional tongue-lashings and public pledges from the company to do better in identifying and expunging falsehoods and propaganda.

The overarching theme - that Facebook, far from being a neutral platform, can be exploited for political purposes - has reasserted itself with the revelation that a data firm employed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign harvested a profusion of user data.

Again in damage-control mode, Facebook announced it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and blamed the company for lying about deleting user data it received in violation of company rules. The company rejected the notion that a data breach had occurred, saying users willingly shared their information with researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who then shared it with Cambridge Analytica.

“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens”, the company said in a statement.

But those assurances were not enough to forestall the gathering political storm. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic blasted the company and demanded more information.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Senator Ron Wyden - an Oregon Democrat with a long history of warning about privacy violations - questioned “the ease with which Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit Facebook’s default privacy settings for profit and political gain” and “the role Facebook played in facilitating the covert collection and minuses of consumer information”.

Joining the chorus, multiple members of the Senate Judiciary Committee - including both Democrats and Louisiana Republican John Kennedy - called on chairman Chuck Grassley to convene hearings that would bring the CEOs of several major tech firms to Capitol Hill. During last year's hearings on Russian social media operations, the tech giants avoided dispatching their chief executives.

“Facebook, Google, and Twitter have amassed unprecedented amounts of personal data and use this data when selling advertising, including political advertisements”, Mr Kennedy and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar wrote in a letter. “The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights”.

As Congress signalled its willingness to again call Facebook to the hot seat, in the UK, Conservative MP Damian Collins accused the company of having disingenuously answered questions about its role, saying “data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent”.

And the UK’s Information Commissioner's Office said it was seeking a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’ servers, with Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham telling Channel 4 News “we need to get in there”.

Facebook said in a statement that auditors it had hired were “on site” at Cambridge Analytica's London office but were subsequently “stood down at the request of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office“.

Taken together, the developments underscore Facebook’s new reality: no longer seen as an agnostic platform for sharing information, it is viewed by those in power as a political player. The spotlight seems unlikely to dim any time soon.