The media also has lessons to learn from the latest Facebook furore


I have spent a long time thinking about what to write about the latest Facebook scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. When I first heard the story, I wasn’t really sure what the new information was. Over a week later, I’m still not sure what’s truly new about it.

I am no fan of Facebook, as regular readers will know. But readers will also know that I am less than impressed with the media’s coverage of Facebook as well.

I have asked around some of my less-techy friends a bit to see what they thought of the story. This wasn’t exhaustive. I’ve only asked a handful of people. But I came across two broad camps.

One group thought this sort of thing was happening anyway and weren’t surprised in the slightest. Another didn’t fully understand the detail of the story, and didn’t seem to care about it. All continue to use Facebook as if nothing ever happened.

It’s also worth pointing out that no-one has raised it as a conversation with me. I have not noticed anyone reducing their use of Facebook in the past couple of weeks.

In fact, I am unusually anti-Facebook among my peers. I don’t have the Facebook or Messenger apps installed on my phone. I almost never post any content directly to Facebook. I block social media trackers on my home computer. But I was already doing all this before the Carole Cadwalladr’s story came out.

Of course, I have seen plenty of loud voices outside my face-to-face social circle joining the #DeleteFacebook campaign. But these generally seem to be people who were suspicious of Facebook anyway, or who have a vested interest in seeing Facebook damaged.

Two types of people

So it seems as if in the ‘real world’ there are two types of people:

  1. Those who don’t really seem to care about this sort of thing happening.
  2. Those who knew this sort of thing was happening anyway.

(You can argue about how aware people were about the extent of data gathering. But few people are truly surprised that something like this was happening at all.)

But there is a third type of person. The media class who either didn’t know this was happening — or pretended they didn’t really know this was happening, but now wants you to really care.

Carole Cadwalladr was on last week’s Media Show on BBC Radio 4. As always, the Media Show was an interesting listen. As is often the case, it is most enlightening for the insight into how people in the media think, which sometimes seems to be from another planet.

On the programme’s panel were three people who all took a broadly identical line on how revelatory Carole Cadwalladr’s story was, and how appalling Facebook is. Carole Cadwalladr’s fellow panel members were treating her with extreme deference. At one point someone said she was going to win the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m not sure someone would win the Pulitzer Prize for “exposing” something that was already pretty well known. But Carole Cadwalladr did make some very interesting points.

She appeared to concede that the extent of data gathering by the likes of Facebook was known and reported by tech journalists. But she argued that the tech journalists had failed to convey this to a mainstream audience in an accessible way.

It’s worth noting that Carole Cadwalladr does not see herself as an investigative journalist, but as a features writer. Her writing on this story has been noted for paying particular attention to the human traits of Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower at the centre of the story.

Carole Cadwalladr is a human interest journalist who has told this story in a way that is interesting to humans. Her work has lit the blue touch paper like no other journalism has done before, despite revealing very little that is genuinely new. There are real lessons for tech journalists there.

The media’s vested interests

However, it is difficult to shake the impression that this story is being pushed much more by the media than it might have been in the past. It is probably no coincidence that this story has come just after the traditional media has decided that Facebook is the cause of all its woes.

Right now the media is looking for any excuse to take a shot at Facebook. I have noted previously that the media is misguided in focusing so heavily on Facebook. Many of the media’s problems are of their own making.

Facebook are far from perfect, and they have warped the media landscape. But the media should also be looking closer to home to make sure they are delivering a product that people actually want.

The media is the data trackers’ best friend

Let’s not forget that news websites have been among the very worst offenders when it comes to installing trackers on their websites.

Media companies have clogged their websites with intrusive ads and invasive trackers (including, very commonly, Facebook’s trackers). This has turned reading news websites into an appalling experience.

It gave Facebook exactly the excuse they needed to create Instant Articles. This locked up news content in the Facebook ecosystem in the name of improved user experience — and media companies went along with it.

It’s also why Google felt the need to create the AMP format. It was frankly a sign that publishers had completely taken their eye off the ball when it came to taking speed and user experience seriously.

When BuzzFeed wrote an article attempting to explain why this Facebook privacy scandal is different, the comments underneath summed it up. Not least in pointing out the fact that BuzzFeed use the Facebook comments plugin, meaning that they are actively assisting Facebook in gathering data about us.

BuzzFeed Facebook story comments

There is also the fact that much of the media portrayed Barack Obama as a heroic wizard for the way his campaign used data gathered about individuals from social media to help him win the election. Now that the bad guys are using the same techniques (albeit in a rather more extreme manner), the media have changed their tune.

On this, I highly recommend Ian Smart’s blog post Tides, which describes how political campaigning techniques have emerged over history. There is a tendency for a new technique to be developed by one party, only for an opposing party to use a more extreme version of it a few years later. At first it is controversial, before it becomes accepted practice.

Among the techniques that fit this pattern are door-to-door canvassing, targeted mail, advertising and cinematic party politial broadcasts. Using data gathered over social media could be the latest to add to this list.

Is the focus on Cambridge Analytica misguided?

A lot of the talk around this story has been the role of Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy that advised the Vote Leave campaign and Donald Trump among others.

Why (almost) everything reported about the Cambridge Analytica Facebook ‘hacking’ controversy is wrong is a must-read blog post about why most reporting on the story has been over-simplified or plain wrong. In short, there was no hack and no real exploit. Instead, the controversy revolves around a feature that Facebook designed and made public. Tens of thousands of developers used it. Facebook later closed the feature, but it was no bug.

It’s also worth noting that internal Facebook data was not accessed. External parties only ever had access to data that they themselves gathered through the apps they had on the Facebook platform.

Then there is the strange focus on this one individual, Christopher Wylie:

Carole Cadwalladr, who spent years on the story, has explained in various interviews that she approached the story not as an investigative journalist but as a features writer. This meant that she focused on delving into ‘the human side of the story’, or put another way- Chris Wylie. There are pros and cons to such an approach but the biggest drawback is how invested and reliant it made her and subsequent coverage in accepting Wylie’s narrative, which just so happens to paint him as a young mastermind at the center of global political conspiracies…

Cadwalladr’s person-focused approach might make for more accessible articles but it also helps to obscure the relevant technical details in favour of providing sensationalist quotes and personal anecdotes from Wylie and his friends and coworkers.

The media’s focus on Cambridge Analytica also deftly obscures the fact that the firm has also been involved in failed campaigns as well as victorious ones. In fact, there is spectacularly little evidence that Cambridge Analytica or Facebook swung the election for Donald Trump or Vote Leave.

But such details don’t matter to the media, who are simply determined to take the Facebook iceberg down as their ship sinks. Even rearranging the deckchairs would do more good than what most of the media is doing right now.

I want to emphasise that I think Facebook is a highly objectionable company. They are doing great damage to the open web and to ssociety.

But the media also need to smarten up their act — big time. They need to be more accurate in their reporting. And they need to stop disingenuously criticising user tracking when they themselves are complicit in tracking users and damaging the open web.

Raising awareness about data concerns

One thing we can all be thankful for is raised awareness of the issues surrounding data and privacy in technology today. It may be true that it is not exactly a huge surprise that some of this was going on.

But it does appear as though there was a section of the world that was oblivious to how much data is gathered, and must have thought that advert retargeting was just a coincidence, or perhaps magic.

One technical consultant has created a Twitter thread which begins, “Want to freak yourself out? I’m gonna show just how much of your information the likes of Facebook and Google store about you without you even realising it”.

He then goes on to list a range of quite prominent and not-at-all-secret features from Google and Facebook to demonstrate how much data they have, beginning with Google’s location tracking.

It’s interesting how many people have found this revelatory, considering that location history is one of the most prominent features on Google Maps. If you thought about it for two seconds, Google Maps would clearly not work nearly as well if it didn’t have knowledge of your location.

(I have also written previously about using Google Takeout to extract your data, most of which I re-uploaded to another Google account.)

But if this story raises awareness around how our data is used, then that can only be a good thing. However, I am sceptical about whether people will actually change their behaviour as a result.

If my hunch is correct, the media’s coverage has been embarrassingly out-of-touch.

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