Facebook shares were down more than 7 percent Monday in the wake of damaging reports that Republican campaign operatives obtained data from 50 million users to inform the campaigns of President Donald Trump and other conservative candidates.
Cambridge Analytica, a firm that uses data to determine voter personality traits and behavior, illegitimately obtained information about Facebook users to help conservative campaigns target advertisements, messaging, and other modes of influence, according to reports from The New York Times and several British publications Saturday. Late Friday evening, Facebook announced it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and associated researchers.
Update: On Monday, Facebook announced the hire of a digital forensics firm “to conduct a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica.”
The Times called it one “one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.” But Facebook rejected that claim as “completely false” because the data was obtained by misleading the company and its users rather than by infiltrating its security systems. Facebook may be overestimating the importance of semantics to investors; the share price of the company was $171 Monday morning, down from $185 Friday.
Alarm over the leak isn’t limited to Facebook’s shareholders. Maura Healy, the attorney general of Massachusetts, is opening an investigation into the matter. The Congressional Democrats leading investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election also called for inquiries into the Cambridge Analytica incident, the Times reports.
Update: Outcry from Washington, D.C. grew louder Monday with additional lawmakers demanding answers from Facebook. In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said, “the ease with which Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit Facebook’s default privacy settings for profit and political gain” raises serious questions about “Facebook’s business practices and the dangers of monetizing consumers’ private information.”
Cambridge Analytica was officially formed by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon with a $15 million investment from Republican mega-donor Robert Mercer. The goal was to leverage tactics originating at Cambridge University that claimed to predict personality traits and behavior through a process called “psychographic mapping.” Cambridge Analytica hired Russian-American psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan to secure the underlying data necessary to conduct this kind of mapping, which helps campaigns target specific groups.
Kogan created an app called thisisyourdigitallife, which offered Facebook users small payments if they downloaded it and took a personality quiz. About 270,000 people signed up, Facebook says. The app scraped private information from those 270,000 Facebook profiles, including data from 50 million of their unwitting Facebook friends. Facebook says that it removed Kogan’s app and demanded the data be destroyed in 2015 when the company learned that user information had been passed along to political operatives. But not all copies of the data have been destroyed, according to The Times.
The Cambridge Analytica news is the latest in a series of political scandals that have rattled Facebook and incurred the ire of lawmakers. The company is also under scrutiny for facilitating Russian interference in the 2016 election and spreading disinformation, hate speech, and other toxic content. Zuckerberg has even made fixing Facebook his “personal mission” for 2018.
“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” Facebook said in a statement. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”