Implications of wrongdoing in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica coverage

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica coverage is complex, involving the work of several organizations, individuals, and U.S. and foreign investigations. The New York Times and The Observer, which broke the story over the weekend, suggested most of the parties involved were guilty of wrongdoing. This might be true, but the accusations weren’t precise or backed by data. Our Raw Data breaks down the facts. Now let’s break down the implications.

What we know vs. what we don’t

In a May 16 statement, Facebook said it had identified two violations of its platform policies. One involved passing Facebook user data to third parties (Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge Analytica researcher who originally acquired the data, passed it onto the firm). The other had to do with Cambridge Analytica and others reportedly not deleting the shared information, which Facebook had requested, after they said they’d destroy it. These two infractions were clearly defined and substantiated in the reports and their sources. The rest of the alleged wrongdoings weren't as clear, mostly because the media implied them.

The outlets cited three current investigations, about which little has been reported publicly, involving Cambridge Analytica. Two of them are taking place in the U.K. relating to the company’s possible involvement in the “Brexit” referendum. Another falls under Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s purview and his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The European Union and the State of Massachusetts also announced they’re initiating investigations into both companies. It seems those investigations may try to ascertain whether citizens' privacy was violated.

The New York Times and The Observer provided most of these specifics. Yet the majority of their content implied wrongdoing on behalf of the parties involved. We discovered several types of distortion, including the use of vague or dramatic language (“spin,” which we’ll mark below), as well as juxtapositions that imply something’s there, when it may not be. None of the implications were supported by precise data that elucidated the nature of the alleged infractions.

Here’s how some of those implications were built and where they may fail.

Weaving webs

Both outlets used vague and incriminating language when describing the parties’ actions. This is problematic in news reporting, because it suggests a premature verdict, rather than upholding the presumption of innocence — an element central to the U.S. system, as well as that of other countries (including Britain). This isn’t to say some of the accusations aren’t or won’t prove to be true, but the articles alone don’t make a well-supported case to accompany the implications of guilt.

For instance, both outlets called the collection of information a “data breach” or a “data leak.” The outlets also emphasized the supposed infraction. The Observer, for example,  described it as a “major data breach” and the Times referred to it as “the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.” These terms may suggest Kogan obtained the data illegally or that he was unauthorized to collect it. Facebook said the claim is “completely false,” and that its policies allowed the data collection at the time.

The issue with this implication and others in the articles is that the outlets don’t specify what an actor did wrong and why it was allegedly illegal. For example, what made the initial collection and use of data a “breach”? Or how did Cambridge Analytica “exploit” the data, or what was illegal about it using the information? There may be data to support the accusations, but it wasn’t clear in the articles.

It’s possible the outlets may have been referring to Kogan’s sharing of the data with third parties as the “breach” (again, that did violate Facebook’s terms of service; his acquisition and use of the data for the stated purposes didn’t). If so, the distinction isn’t evident in the articles.

The Times’ article is especially problematic, because it claims in its headline that “Trump consultants exploited” the data, and its lead sentence establishes that Cambridge Analytica “had a problem.” That problem, readers later find out, was a missing resource to carry out its work, yet the spin portrays Cambridge Analytica as suspicious, at best. Here’s a similar example from the Observer:

The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election.

Tangling the webs

A common slant technique is juxtaposition. It’s relating two or more things that don’t necessarily go together, inspiring jumping to specific conclusions or perspectives (aka slant). Consider this excerpt from the Times:

The documents [obtained by the Times for this report] also raise new questions about Facebook, which is already grappling with intense criticism over the spread of Russian propaganda and fake news.

This, again, portrays Facebook as shady. And it’s not the only mention of the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections in the articles. Do the Russia investigations intersect with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytics case? Maybe. But again, you won’t find hard evidence of it in these reports. (Bear in mind, too, that little is known of the findings in those investigations.)

What emphasizing a “not” can do

The two outlets seemed to emphasize what Facebook didn’t do in the course of these events. For instance:

But the full scale of the data leak involving Americans has not been previously disclosed — and Facebook, until now, has not acknowledged it … Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control. (The New York Times)
However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals. (The Observer)

In the context of these articles, these statements portray the social network as negligent, non-transparent or complicit in some wrongdoing. Again, the problem isn’t so much the claim, rather than it not being backed by facts or contextual information. For instance, what is Facebook obligated to disclose in circumstances like these? Did it violate any laws by not making users and their networks aware that their information had been shared and was being used for purposes other than academic? The outlets didn’t say.

As the articles are written (without precise data about the alleged wrongdoing, that is), they give readers an impression of a “problem” and that Facebook has had a part in it. If the outlets’ emphasis on the “non action” isn't evident, there’s also their selection of quotes. In particular, there’s this one from the Observer:

Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a data protection specialist, who spearheaded the investigative efforts into [Facebook], said: “Facebook has denied and denied and denied this. It has misled MPs and congressional investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law.

All webs lead to Trump

As a lot of news reports do these days, these too implicated President Trump and his campaign in wrongdoing — specifically, in possible collusion with Russia. The Observer had the most overt statement in this regard: the outlet claimed Cambridge Analytica was “the data analytics firm that helped Donald Trump to victory.” The statement followed mentions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion. Given this, what do you conclude?

The implication of collusion in some of today’s media coverage is also supported by an oversimplified notion that collusion between Trump and Russia, if it did occur, would definitely have been a significant determinant in Trump’s victory. Yet outlets don’t tend to demonstrate proof of this, and it’s quite a difficult thing to prove, as election outcomes are the effect of numerous, complex factors.

The Times’ and Observer’s coverage furthers this notion, instead of recognizing the participation of many parties in appointing the leaders we have today. If society desires a change in leadership, this recognition — not blaming just one factor — is crucial.

The Times presented information in a similar fashion:

Congressional investigators have questioned [Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander] Nix about the company’s role in the Trump campaign. And [Mueller] has demanded the emails of Cambridge Analytica employees who worked for the Trump team as part of his investigation into [alleged] Russian interference in the election … While the substance of Mr. Mueller’s interest is a closely guarded secret, documents viewed by The Times indicate that the firm’s British affiliate claims to have worked in Russia and Ukraine. And the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, disclosed in October that Mr. Nix had reached out to him during the campaign in hopes of obtaining private emails belonging to … Hillary Clinton …
Mr. Bannon was intrigued by the possibility of using personality profiling to shift America’s culture and rewire its politics … The firm helped the Trump campaign target voters.

This is one account and one way of arranging the data. Consider the following points (some are contextual):

  • U.S. intelligence agencies last year assessed “with high confidence” that the Russian government ordered an “influence campaign” in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election;
  • Trump has been accused of collusion with Russia;
  • Cambridge Analytica appears to have some links to Russia;
  • The firm worked with the Trump campaign, and the vice president of its board later became a special advisor to the White House;
  • AND Mueller is inquiring into the company’s affairs.

What do you get? Gauging by the way facts and players and assembled here, Trump looks guilty of collusion with Russia. This may be true, yet the way it’s presented is slanted.

The media isn’t charged with investigating crimes. Furthermore, it’s displaying partisan bias, especially when it comes to Trump and the Russia investigations.

It is possible some or maybe all the implications and accusations prove true — including those relating to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It’s also possible they may not. Whatever the outcome, it should be the result of a judicial process, not the media’s. Journalists can play an important role in that process, by objectively reporting the facts and increasing public awareness without bias. Anything less than that may interfere.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media