Last week, social media giant Facebook announced that it was suspending data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) from its platform. According to Facebook, CA had violated its policies on user data when a researcher accessed millions of user’s data from the site and transferred it to CA.
CA has so far denied any accusations of wrongdoing and has since issued a statement asserting that the middleman, Global Science Research, was entirely to blame for any violations of Facebook’s policies, doubling down on denials it has had to issue repeatedly since the 2016 US general election.
CEO Alexander Nix told a UK parliamentary select committee two weeks ago that data analytics is embedded in modern political practice and the only reason why people are upset with CA’s work is “they don’t like the candidate who won”.
Thousands of miles away in Nairobi, those of us who watched the 2017 Kenyan election closely received the news with a mix of vindication and alarm. Vindication, because we had already seen the footprints of various data analytics firms like CA all over our contentious, yet-unresolved 2017 election; alarm because we still don’t know what exactly CA did in Kenya beyond its PR operations.
We know that since 2013, digital tools have been extensively used in our politics as our major political parties spent millions on foreign PR and IT consultants. We know that in 2012, a young consultant working for the firm in Kenya was found dead in his hotel room. In 2017, Privacy International claimed that the ruling Jubilee Party spent $6m to contract Cambridge Analytica, while the opposition retained Aristotle, Inc for its own analytics operation. In fact, in the secret video shot by Channel 4, Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica, says of the Jubilee party, “we have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys… We’d write all the speeches and stage the whole thing, so just about every element of his campaign.”
Beyond a mere ‘breach of trust’, this scandal raises important legal, moral and philosophical questions about the nature of politics in the digital age, in which Kenya is instructive.
Responding to the reports, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the site “had made mistakes” and that there had been a “breach of trust”. But this legalese doesn’t get to the heart of what Cambridge Analytica has done, or what Facebook has made possible: the core issues that come up when technology collides so crudely with politics. Beyond a mere “breach of trust” this scandal raises important legal, moral and philosophical questions about the nature of politics in the digital age, in which Kenya is instructive.
Privacy and data
The best way to think about this scandal is as three concentric rings of increasing historical impact. The smallest ring – or the immediate issue – concerns privacy and data, and especially the legal space in which social media sites operate. When individuals hand over their private data to social media sites, they believe that what they are doing is similar to having a one on one conversation with family, friends or colleagues but on a specific platform. But a social media site is not a telephone company or a public space. It is a private corporation that needs to make money for its shareholders. The easiest way for them to do that is to turn all the information that you hand over to them into a product for other people to sell you things – which is what Facebook routinely does.
In this case, an innocuous quiz administered to about a quarter of a million people allowed a firm to collect private data on over 50 million users because it also surreptitiously collected information on friends and “friends of friends” – people who had not consented to allow their data to be mined. And that, in part, is why this issue has caused problems for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the UK and not in North America or Africa: UK privacy law prohibits such indirect data collection and has systems in place to punish it. In the US, there isn’t a unified law prohibiting this third party data mining so journalists have scrambled to find a connection between CA and Russian collusion in the general election as a smoking gun for culpability. In Kenya, which to date still doesn’t have a broad data protection law, users are essentially at the mercy of their own discernment.
Of course, illegality and immorality are two separate things. Much of the problem here is that information was being taken from people who did not expressly consent to having it taken. As researcher Zeynep Tufecki has demonstrated, until 2014 this was not a bug in Facebook’s…