The rise of Facebook seems to be one of the most successful stories ever. What began in 2004 as a platform for Harvard students became popular and conquered the world in a very short period of time. Within 15 years, Facebook has become one of the most powerful corporations in the world, playing a major role in shaping the online environment. Although the company has had to deal with criticism again and again, nothing hit it as hard as the (un)voluntary cooperation with Cambridge Analytica. Most likely the most famous data scandal the world has ever seen, the aftereffects and reputational damage are still very difficult to assess.
2018 did not start well for Cambridge Analytica and its CEO Alexander Nix. In February – just one month before the bomb dropped – Mr. Nix told the British parliament that CA did not receive data from Facebook, which very soon turned out to be a lie. Only days later, several news outlets published a secretly taken film where Nix talked about “beautiful Ukrainian girls” to discredit political opponents in Sri Lanka. This was not the first secret recording in which Nix boasted about CA's (illegal) activities.
A few days later, on March 17, 2018, the scandal was about to fully hit the fan when The Guardian and The New York Times simultaneously published a story, based on insider information received from a whistle-blower, about how a British consultancy firm helped the Ted Cruz presidential campaign in 2015. Within a week, the story became the perhaps biggest scandal about data mining to date, with newspapers worldwide writing about data misuse on Facebook and the manipulative activities of CA. The two main protagonists saw themselves, at least at the beginning, in the role of the victims. It took both companies several days before they finally broke their silence. CA denied to have broken any laws and also denied using the data during the US presidential election in 2016. Facebook, on the other hand, apologised to users with a letter in various newspapers but only called the scandal a “breach of trust”.
The apology came too late, though, and it didn’t address the issue in detail. As a consequence, it wasn’t perceived as honest. The public outrage was immense – Google alone listed 129 million findings addressing the term “Facebook data scandal” and 1.92 million results for “Cambridge Analytica data scandal”. The bosses of both companies felt compelled to take a public stand for the second time. Alexander Nix's was suspended from Cambridge Analytica on March 20. Next up was Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In early April 2018, he stated that Facebook would undergo a reform in its policy to prevent a similar breach. Facebook also decided to implement the new EU data protection regulations (GDPR) in all areas of operations worldwide on a voluntary basis. Ye,t the reputational damage was severe and as it turned out not just for the short run. On April 10, 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg had to endure an uncomfortable testimony before the US Congress and one month later, he also had to stand trial before the EU Parliament.
In late April, Facebook had to reveal its first quarterly report after the scandal broke out. Despite an immense fall in Facebooks stock prices between March and April 2018, the report showed that Facebook has had the second strongest quarter in its history, generating a revenue of $11.97 billion in the first quarter of the year. Shareholders seemed to be relieved about the fact that the share price not only stabilized, but it even reached a new all-time high in July 2018. However, the joy was short-lived when, on July 26, it became public that 3 million European users had deleted Facebook as a consequence of data abuse. Facebook was caught up by its recent past for a second time and the share price literally collapsed and plummeted by $109 billion – with no end in sight. Still in July, UK’s “watchdog”, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), announced to fine Facebook with £500,000 for the data scandal, which was the maximum fine possible under the old data protection rules. “Even after the discovery of data misuse in December 2015, Facebook did not do enough to ensure that those who continued to hold the data had taken adequate and timely remedial action, including deletion,” was the verdict of the ICO. Cynics might argue that this fine was a modest price to pay – a mere 0.05% of the company’s free cash flow.
While the consequences for Facebook seemed to be very unpleasant, Cambridge Analytica and its mother company SCL Group, were hit even harder. Within the first days of the scandal, both companies lost many clients who left as a response to the public pressure. The reputational damage was perceived as too heavy to continue operations. On May 1st, 2018, just about 40 days after the data scandal peaked, CA and the SCL Group both had to announce the closing of their doors with immediate effect. Neither Cambridge Analytica nor the SCL Group were legally convicted at this point. Once again, history seemed to prove that restoring a damaged reputation – regardless of whether a moral or legal problem arises – is in the best case a long-winded project and in the case of untrue statements and bad crisis management, a thing that often ends with the demise of the company.
The rise of Facebook seems to be one of the most successful stories ever. What began in 2004 as a platform for Harvard students became popular and conquered the world in a very short period of time. Within 15 years, Facebook has become one of the most powerful corporations in the world, playing a major role in shaping the online environment. Although the company has had to deal with criticism again and again, nothing hit it as hard as the (un)voluntary cooperation with Cambridge Analytica, which is most likely the most famous data scandal the world has ever seen – resulting in an unprecented loss of trust and reputation.
When extensive Wikipedia pages are dedicated to a “breach of trust”, and Google displays 2,690,000 results for this “breach”, it is a safe bet to say that something definitely has gone (very) wrong. And that, perhaps, there was more than just a breach of trust. In this specific case, though, it took almost three years after the first articles were published until the big media scolding and the resulting consequences occurred. Three years in which one would have had the chance to actually prevent reputational damage. This is the story behind the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal and its implications for the reputation of two of the world's most influential companies.
“This is Your Digital Life”is the innocent name of an app which Aleksandr Kogan developed in 2014 at the Cambridge University. An app that was different than others, though. It was designed to vacuum up the data of the people using it. And the data of their friends – including the data which they hadn’t intended to share publicly. Mr. Kogan provided the app to a young British political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica (CA), which combined data mining, data brokerage and data analysis with strategic communication in electoral processes. The London-based agency had developed a profiling system using online data, such as Facebook interactions and smartphone data. As a political consulting agency, CA mainly focused on voters demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity and other private and public sources. Cleverly combining strategic advice and new newly acquired technological capability, CA was quickly able to run a Facebook survey that silently aspirated the data of people participating – and their friends. The entire operation was mainly orchestrated and run by two key people: Alexander Nix, Director of the SCL Group – CA’s mother company – and CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and Steve Bannon, vice president of Cambridge Analytica, executive chairman of Breitbart News and former chief strategist of president Donald Trump.
In 2014, CA actually started harvesting data on Facebook. Data which was used in the 2014 midterm elections in the US and in 2015 for the presidential run of Ted Cruz.While Cambridge Analytica later admitted to collecting 30 million Facebook user profiles, Facebook itself estimated that around 87 million profiles were affected by Mr. Kogans App.
A Bloomberg article reported in November 2015 that CA was hired by the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, headed by Nigel Farage. As it turned out, Alexander Nix and Nigel Farage were friends, and this operation was done pro bono. It was the first time microtargeting was raised to a public level and used to influence an election campaign.
On 11 December 2015, the Guardian first published an article on Cambridge Analytica and its methods. The journalist Harry Davies was already able to show that the election campaign of the Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was driven forward by data from Cambridge Analytica. It was also known at the time the data was being collected via an application of Facebook, which led to the first time that Facebook had to take a public position on the issue. Their comment on this article was very general: “[M]isleading people or misusing their information is a direct violation of our policies and we will take swift action against companies that do, including banning those companies from Facebook and requiring them to destroy all improperly collected data,” a Facebook spokesman said. However, nothing in this direction was actually undertaken by Facebook – apparently this simple intervention was enough and no further media outlets caught on to the story at this stage.
2016 and 2017 was a busy year for the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica. After the Ted Cruz campaigning team lost against Donald Trump, CA was hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 to help them win the national election against Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile in Europe, another firm with close ties to the SCL Group, AggregateIQ, helped the second pro-Brexit group “Vote Leave”.
During that time, media attention lay almost exclusively on the surprising election results and not on CA and its Facebook data. The calmness continued until December 15, 2017, when CA was again mentioned in the media, this time in a Wall Street Journal report, stating that Robert Mueller, the American Special Counsel to investigate potential Russian interference in the US presidential election, had requested files from Cambridge Analytica. Once again, however, this did not get the attention of other media and neither Cambridge Analytica nor the SCL Group nor Facebook had to face any further negative press. This was about to change drastically, though, in early 2018.
Read Part II of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal
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