For decades, Silicon Valley has been self-mandated to “disrupt” industries across the board. But what happens when we flip the script, and look at the factors disrupting technology itself? Disrupt Tech does just that—bringing together varying perspectives to discuss and challenge the status quo around the way the tech sector operates, our impact, and the way forward.
A recent Disrupt Tech sparked a conversation on Cambridge Analytics. While I’ve grappled with my own thoughts on the topic internally and through siloed conversations, I valued the opportunity to dive deeper, and exchange ideas with others. The discussion inspired me to share my thoughts on the topic through this post. I’m by no means an expert, but here I explore:
- The Scandal: what happened and how?
- The Reaction: what was the backlash and why?
- The Outcome: what’s next?
Following the 2016 Election, it surfaced that a research group, Cambridge Analytica, leveraged Facebook data to profile millions of people, and target content, and arguably influencing voter behavior around the election. You can check out this primer on the topic. Let’s dive into how this happened.
A Digital Megaphone
Social media created an unprecedented platform for expression, and soon the internet was overflowing with information on people. In parallel, the technology to parse and process that data improved massively—giving meaning and power to otherwise disparate and useless data points. Social media handed us a megaphone, and people used it for unbridled self-expression, all the while not registering that they were generating data.
The Network Effect
The big kicker in the scandal is the exponential access to data given to Cambridge Analytica through Facebook’s policies, which were naïve at best and negligent at worst. Data sharing was left unregulated. Why? Data science technologies had outpaced anything regulatory bodies could have anticipated, and those aware of the capabilities of modern tech were benefiting from the lack of regulation.
Our Changing Media Consumption
Nearly two-thirds of American adults get their news from social media sites, such as Facebook. So, while Facebook ads were widely accepted when they targeted retail decisions, most people didn’t realize the power of Facebook as a channel for political propaganda. Also, unlike traditional media outlets, which is subject to fact checking, the content on Facebook had no obligation to the truth.
The entire incident left many people feeling indignant, fueling an already growing skepticism around the power of tech companies. The Cambridge Analytica scandal resulted in a Senate hearing. For three days, Mark Zuckerberg sat for questioning from the Senate in an awkward exchange where senators asked a series of misguided questions, and Zuckerberg did his best not to dig himself into a legal hole. Facebook is not the first company to be caught amidst an egregious misuse of customer data (such as Goolge and Uber to name a few), but it’s the first to prompt a senate hearing. What gave this scandal in particular so much traction?
American consumers expect corporations to act with their best interest at heart–despite ample cases that suggest otherwise (think: Enron, subprime mortgage lending, corporate lobbies, etc). However, the sequence of events was unfathomable to consumers. Outside of Silicon Valley, few people understood the prowess of data science—so the notion of ads manipulating their actions left consumers feeling blindsided and vulnerable to a threat they couldn’t have imagined.
Being Mugged vs Being Conned
Nothing illegal technically happened in this scandal. Consumers opted in to providing their information, and chose to blindly accept Terms and Conditions that were ultimately valid. Other scandals, such as the Equifax data breach, happened to consumers, without their consent, but in the case of Cambridge Analytica, consumers were complicit in this happening—whether they meant to or not. Consumers felt conned by Facebook for using luring them into providing data that was used indiscriminately for financial gain.
A Socially Charged Outcome
Arguably the biggest contributor to the reaction to this scandal was the association with the 2016 Presidential Election. Thought the actual impact of the ads is debatable, the association with a contentious election struck emotional chords amongst the public.
Almost nothing. There was a few weeks of sensationalized news cycles, fluctuations in the market, and some reputational rebuilding for Facebook, but not much beyond that. In the Senate sessions, it was clear that regulation would hold little water, and beyond a slap on the wrist and lobbying from Facebook, there was going to be little consequence. But, importantly, it unveiled a reality about how data can be used, and the safeguards we should consider.
The Threat of Regulation
The question of whether tech companies should be regulated, and if so, how, is top of mind, especially given the Senate hearings. Regulation in other industries, such as the FDA, does offer safeguards, but at the expense of agility in innovation—a value that hits the core of Silicon Valley. Those hurt the most by regulation would be smaller tech companies, which, unlike tech giants like Facebook, Netflix, or Google, have not yet established value/rapport with a large customer base.
The Alternative to Regulation
Consumers have an active role to play in managing the private sector. The risk of consumer backlash for the private sector only exists if consumers are vigilant and informed. Civil society—watchdog groups, nonprofits, and other organized groups that champion public interest—are key in shaping that accountability. News on Facebook should be held to the same public scrutiny as other media organizations.
Highlighting Vulnerable Populations
At a micro level, we also need to adopt a level of skepticism in our consumption of ads—both retail and political. The ability to doctor content is far beyond the power of photoshop, to include the manipulation of video and voice—enabling anyone with the right toolset to create an alternate reality. Regulation is not enough—a well-informed society is key.
While it’s heartening to see programs already forming to equip future generations, it’s important to consider that those most vulnerable to data abuse are typically underserved populations. Additional effort should be made to expand the reach of awareness to uneducated segments of society, who are targets for the misuse of data. This includes a responsibility of corporations to make terms and conditions that are written for consumers, not lawyers.
There is a lot to appreciate in what harnessing data can do strengthen our democracy. For example, profiling can be used for targeting social programs, instead of just for retail ads. Likewise, an infrastructure needs to be created that brings the benefits, awareness, and accessibility of technology to the underserved populations outside of urban centers—creating a more resilient, and less divided, nation.
Many of these points, and more, were shared during Disrupt Tech. It was refreshing to hear balanced arguments, direct insight, and engaging dialogue. I’m excited to have a forum for authentic ideas and thought exchange. I encourage anyone interested to join the conversation — you don’t need to be an expert (case in point: me!), you just have to come in with an open mind, curiosity, and interest in engaging with the events shaping our future.
Preeth Kumar currently works in growth marketing at an energy analytics software company in Silicon Valley. Her background includes project planning and implementation of rural energy initiatives in New Delhi, India, as well as project finance for the North American power sector in Los Angeles. She holds her Masters in Environment and Development from the London School of Economics, and undergraduate degrees in Business Economics and Environmental Sciences from the University of Arizona.