Cambridge Analytica: Impact and backlash


US President Donald Trump. PHOTO: AFP

The New York Times and Britain's Observer newspaper reported on March 17 that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested private data on more than 50 million Facebook users to support US President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign.

The data was used to help it design software to predict and influence voters' choices at the ballot box.

Facebook said the data had been misused but not stolen, because users gave permission. Facebook has already testified about how its platform was used by Russian propagandists ahead of the 2016 election .

Cambridge Analytica, the US unit of British behavioural marketing firm SCL, rose to prominence as the firm that the pro-Brexit group Leave. EU hired for data-gathering and audience-targeting.


WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton called for people to delete Facebook. PHOTO: REUTERS

"It is time. #deletefacebook." That declaration came from Mr Brian Acton, co-founder of the messaging service WhatsApp - itself a Facebook property, sold to the company for US$19 billion in 2014 - in a tweet after news of the social network's Cambridge Analytica scandal began to break.

The hashtag has since gone viral on Twitter and its impact is beginning to be seen. On Friday, verified Facebook pages of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's rocket company SpaceX and electric car-maker Tesla disappeared, minutes after the Silicon Valley billionaire promised on Twitter to take down the pages when challenged by users.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk. PHOTO: REUTERS

"Delete SpaceX page on Facebook if you're the man?" a user tweeted to Tesla chief executive Musk. His response: "I didn't realise there was one. Will do."

Facebook pages of SpaceX and Tesla, which had millions of followers, are no longer accessible.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy blasting off on its maiden test flight on Feb 6, carrying CEO Elon Musk's red Tesla roadster to an orbit near Mars. PHOTO: REUTERS


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. PHOTO: REUTERS

Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg have borne the brunt of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The Fortune 500 company's shares have tanked 14 per cent, wiping out US$50 billion (S$66 billion) in market value, ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.

Mr Zuckerberg was one of the billionaires worst hurt in a wider stock market rout as well.

The slide in his company's share price wiped out US$10.3 billion of his personal wealth and he dropped three places to seventh in ranking on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Ever since news of the data breach broke, tech companies have been particularly hard hit in the stock market as investors worry that the government could impose regulations on the entire social media industry.


Malaysian politician Mukhriz Mahathir. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The Malaysian government had to issue a denial that it ever hired Cambridge Analytica after a secretly recorded video by Britain's Channel 4 News showed the firm's officials saying they have used a web of shell companies to disguise their activities in elections.

According to Cambridge Analytica's website, the firm "supported Barisan Nasional in Kedah state with a targeted messaging campaign highlighting their school improvements since 2008".

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's office also said SCL has informed the government that "Cambridge Analytica's advice on the 2013 general election was provided personally to Mukhriz Mahathir", former Kedah menteri besar and the son of former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad. Mr Mukhriz has denied receiving any analysis, data or advice from the firm.


Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. PHOTO: AFP

Cambridge Analytica's alleged role in elections in Kenya, Brazil and India has also raised eyebrows.

Kenya's ruling Jubilee party has acknowledged it paid for "branding" in the 2017 presidential election from SCL. The London-based consultancy also ran the campaigns of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 elections, according to video secretly recorded and broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 News.

Supporters of Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta cheering at a Jubilee Party campaign rally at Uhuru park in Nairobi last August. The ruling party has acknowledged it paid for "branding" in the presidential election from SCL. PHOTO: REUTERS

In Brazil, prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether the London-based political consultancy acted illegally in Brazil. By many measures, Brazil is Facebook's third-largest market.

In India, the government has set a March 31 deadline for Cambridge Analytica to respond to a query on whether it was engaged to improperly harvest Facebook data on Indian citizens. Both the ruling and main opposition parties have traded allegations that the other has engaged the services of the controversial firm.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 25, 2018, with the headline Cambridge Analytica: Impact and backlash. Subscribe