The media today: Facebook under fire following data-breach reports

Connections between a shocking electoral upset, a shadowy data analytics firm, and a tech giant were the focus of dual stories in The New York Times and the Guardian-owned Observer this weekend. The joint investigation detailed how Cambridge Analytica, a firm with ties to Donald Trump’s campaign, gathered personal data on 50 million Facebook users without their consent. Facebook, already reeling from revelations about fake news and Russian influence, is back in damage-control mode as the fallout continues.

The Observer’s story, written by Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, calls the harvesting of user information, “one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches.” They write that Cambridge Analytica—funded by the powerful Mercer family and headed at the time by Steve Bannon—used the data “to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.” On Sunday, Cadwalladr wrote a companion piece explaining how she worked with Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blowing former Cambridge Analytica employee who provided her with documents demonstrating the firm’s actions. “He may have played a pivotal role in the momentous political upheavals of 2016,” Cadwalladr writes. By the spring of 2017, when she started speaking with him, Wylie was “guilty, brooding, indignant, confused.”

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Facebook initially sought to downplay the reporting, but on Friday announced that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica, Wylie, and researcher Aleksandr Kogan from the platform. The tech giant denied that the harvesting of user data could be described as a “breach,” writing that “people knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.” It blamed the misuse of that data on Cambridge Analytica, and promised changes to its processes.

The response from government officials in the US and Britain was swift, with Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar leading the charge. “This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” she tweeted. “I’ve called for more transparency & accountability for online political ads. They say ‘trust us.’ Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before Senate Judiciary.” The New York Times’s Matthew Rosenberg reported on trans-Atlantic reactions of politicians demanding action from the Facebook.

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This weekend’s reports, and Facebook’s response to them, once again demonstrated big-picture issues related to the influence of social media platforms in the political process. The lack of transparency and shirking of responsibility by Mark Zuckerberg and his executives is disturbing, but the larger issue might be that we are only just learning the extent of the power these companies possess.

Below, more on the reaction to the Facebook revelations.

  • Wylie’s response: “Suspended by @facebook. For blowing the whistle. On something they have known privately for 2 years,” he tweeted Sunday.
  • Word games: “Facebook officials today playing semantic—but legally very important to regulators—word games about a data ‘breach,’” the Times’s Nicholas Confessore, who worked on the story, tweeted “But who needs to steal passwords when Facebook will just give some dude access to your profile and not even check his app out that closely?”
  • More to come?: The UK’s Channel 4 posted a teaser clip promising to take users “inside the world of Cambridge Analytica after our reporters went undercover as prospective clients.” The report is set to air Monday night in Britain.
  • A disturbing pattern: CNN’s Brian Stelter notes that this is the third major issue Facebook has dealt with in relation to its role in the 2016 election.
  • From the archives: The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Emily Bell provided a prescient warning just over two years ago, writing that “something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves.”

 

Other notable stories

  • New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi has a cover story on Hope Hicks, the famously press-shy White House communications director who announced her departure last month. It’s a juicy story full of palace intrigue, and the revelation that Hicks kept detailed notebooks may be of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan focuses on the increase in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, a topic that hasn’t received much national coverage. “Obsessed with the seemingly daily updates in the Stormy Daniels story or the impeachment potential of the Russia investigation, the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal,” Sullivan writes.
  • For CJR, Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm praises ProPublica’s transparency in correcting its story about newly nominated CIA Director Gina Haskel, but argues that “these types of unintentional mistakes would be almost entirely avoidable if journalists did not have to read between the lines of ridiculous government redactions meant to cover up crimes.
  • The AT&T-Time Warner deal is headed to court this week, with the Trump Justice Department attempting to block the acquisition. Evidentiary hearings are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, and the trial is set to begin on Wednesday. The New York Times’s John Koblin has a preview of the trial, writing that “the talk in media circles revolves around what will happen if the acquisition is stopped and Time Warner—the owner of HBO, Warner Bros., CNN, TBS and TNT—is made an orphan. And what will it mean for the old-guard entertainment companies in the streaming age?”
  • Meredith is expected to cut 200 to 300 positions after its recent purchase of Time Inc., reports The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. The layoffs are expected to focus on Time Inc. employees in New York, as Meredith attempts to trim up to $500 million in costs over the next couple of years.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.