Politics, Culture Wars, and Facebook Data

Thanks to the zealous inquiries of Attorney General Mark Herring, we have learned that 7,100 Virginians downloaded a third-party app that yielded some 1.7 million of their Virginia Facebook friends to a contractor working for data harvesting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which had been hired by the Trump campaign.

“While we continue to await a fuller explanation about this incident from Facebook and its leadership, an important first step is getting our arms around the scale of the exposure,” said Attorney General Herring in a press release. “The fact that one in five Virginians may have had their personal information shared without permission is extremely troubling.”

The source of the breach was a Facebook quiz app, called ThisIsYourDigitalLife, explains the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The third-party research app collected information not only on Facebook users who approved it but also their friends. Herring collected the data from Facebook as part of a group of 37 state attorneys general who formally wrote the company asking for answers to questions about the Cambridge Analytica incident.

Bacon’s bottom line: Waaah! What else did people think Facebook was doing with all the data? Using it only to micro-target banner ads? C’mon. Nothing is free. If you’re not being charged cash for digital media, you’re giving away your data. How else did Facebook and Alphabet (owner of Google) become two of the most highest-valued public companies in the world? The only reason the incident has become an issue is that a firm working for Republicans were caught using the data. There were no histrionics when the Obama campaign asked followers to share data about their friends — to the contrary, the architects of Obama’s social media strategy were hailed as brilliant at the time!

Hair-splitters argue that the two cases were different. In the Obama campaign, people knew they were sharing the names of their friends. In the Cambridge Analytica incident, people were playing a “This Is Your Digital Life” quiz and didn’t know their data was being harvested. However, in neither case did the “friends” of those sharing their data have any knowledge or say-so about their use of their data. Thus, the hair splitters’ distinction is meaningful for the 0.5% of the people who shared their data but not the other 99.5% whose data was being mined without their knowledge or permission.

Let’s face it, the digital realm has become the new battleground of America’s larger culture war, and everything anyone says about Facebook, Google search algorithms, Twitter posting policies, and a dozen related issues must be viewed through the prism of our polarized politics. Nothing escapes the culture wars — nothing. There is no corner of our society you can hide in to avoid it. We seem to be experiencing a creeping “democratic totalitarianism” – totalitarian not in the Hitler or Stalin sense of an all-powerful police state, but totalitarian in the sense that every sphere of our society and culture is being dragged into the political realm and that we’re all subject to the capricious whims of the cyber-mob.

Herring did proffer one good piece of advice: “Review [your] privacy settings and make sure they understand just what [you] may be sharing with Facebook and other social media platforms.” Here’s my advice: Understand the motives of everyone pontificating about data privacy and social media. There’s almost always a political angle.

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9 responses to “Politics, Culture Wars, and Facebook Data”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    There’s always a political angle and everybody has to tithe to the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond …


    Obviously, Facebook has a clear and compelling reason to donate $10,500 to Dick Saslaw’s re-election campaign. After all, he was in a competitive election back in the 80s.

    I wish I owned stock in Bookbinder’s.

  2. djrippert Avatar

    As far as your personal data being collected … I agree with Jim – how else does anybody think Facebook makes money. If you aren’t paying for a product you are the product. The thing that would shock most people is how much of their personal data has been collected and is available for a price to pretty much anybody. I know one Northern Virginia company that has 2,000 data elements on 180 million Americans. That’s a whole lot of data on just about every adult American. I actually laughed out loud when they told me they didn’t keep any personally identifiable information (e.g. name, SSN). All you need to know is my name age and address to make a match. I happen to be the only 59 year old man living at my address. Welcome to 2,000 data elements about me.

    Here’s a fun fact – if you identify as a Democrat or a liberal you will make more visits to Home Depot per year than people identifying as Republican or Independent. You will also spend more on average each time you go to the store.

    The company also correctly predicted Trump’s victory before the election.

  3. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Jim,

    Every time I log-in at work, I am greeted by a dialog box that reads, in part, “There is no expectation of privacy” on the network. The same can be said pretty much for everyone, everywhere who ventures into cyber space.



  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think all along – before the internet… there were “customer referrals”…

    sometimes a discount was offered if you provided the names of your “friends”.

    This is a 21st century variation and while I do quibble a little with the difference between telling folks up front about the real intent of the data collection verses data collected for purposes not disclosed is different.

    But in a way – this is also a little like a payday loan lender who takes advantage of the lack of consumer knowledge to profit off of them while folks with better credit records are “protected” by govt-imposed credit card policies.

    By the way, Europe was onto this issues – years ago and holding Google and Facebook feet to the fire while we did nothing in this country because of our collective views that govt should stay out of business and not burden them with “costly” regulation.

    So.. now… here’ s the question… does Jim Bacon support govt regulation on this issue for Google and Facebook or just let it go like payday loans.. and it’s “buyer beware”?

    So .. yeah… what’s the big uproar all about? What’s a jobs-providing business to do? everytime they turn around, the govt is messing with them, eh?

    I wonder how many GOP are willing to come out and say that Facebook is a job-producing business and should not have the jack booted govt messing with their business model?

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    DJ, you’d be surprised how seldom most of us gumshoe lobbyists actually paid for a fancy meal for any legislator, even before the McDonnell case broke up the party. That’s for the big rich firms (who play this game of splitting the cost among multiple clients to hide it.) It does still happen plenty, but it is possible to succeed without it.

    Receptions like the one Facebook reports on VPAP are far more common, a big mix and mingle with an open bar.

    I completely enjoyed the theater as Zuckerberg was whipped with that wet noodle by Congress. Both party political operatives are totally dependent now on the data they can layer onto the voter files from all the mining going on. No way in hell they will really prohibit it.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I’m not surprised at all. The new approach seems to be to lavish campaign contributions on the politician and have the politician buy the lobbyists fancy meals using the campaign contributions. Steak and lobster at Bookbiners with a side of slaw … Saslaw.

      As far as Zuckerberg – I couldn’t agree more. While I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg I do know a lot of the tech CEOs in the valley. Most are miserable people. Arrogant, unprincipled people who spend their days telling fairy tales about how their companies are benefitting society.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Data mining is old hat and the Feds have willingly provided that data to businesses.

    I refer to Zip Codes and Census Data which companies like Walmart use in making strategic decisions.


    if anything – the Post Office has grossly underpriced the data – at a time when they are running a deficit and they have a virtual monopoly on the data.

    What’s changed is the way that such data is obtained… no longer just by Zip Code or Census data.. but your “presence” online… but in the end – the zip code and census data is still exceptionally valuable not only for business but politics.

    Political parties know – down to the precincts and the neighborhoods in the precinct – the demographics and voting patterns… and target the voters with messages designed to appeal to their voting instincts… and that’s where money comes in … it takes money to “message” the voters… and that money comes from sources that basically want to preempt the voters…

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Your presence online, your location from Waze, a measurement of your intelligence from all those cute little online quizzes and HQ’s trivia contests. Your political views from feeding you right or left slanted articles and noting which ones get you to click the “like” button. If you have more than 200 tweets I can plot your Briggs-Myer personality type with 90+% accuracy.

      Very serious crimes are routinely solved by noting which cell phone towers your smartphone was “pinging” at any given time. But what if the government hacks the data that has you in the vicinity of a murder when you claimed to be at home reading Baconsrebellion? There was a recent case where a person was stabbed and ended up dying on the way to the hospital. The police found blood other than the victim’s and ran a DNA test. It connected to a person who had been convicted of a prior crime. Open and shut case, right? Luckily for the accused he was in the hospital at the time of the stabbing. He’d been in a car wreak the same day as the stabbing. The EMT who brought the car crash victim to the hospital also picked up the stabbing victim without having time to put on new gloves. The DNA was transferred. Had the car crash victim been treated and discharged instead of being admitted I am sure he would have been arrested and probably convicted of murder.

      The more more digital dust you leave in your wake and the more infallible people perceive that data to be the more you are exposed to willful manipulation … by hackers, criminals, the police and/or the government.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: willful manipulation

    maybe you don’t mean it that way but this whole big thing strikes me as one in which some folks think people can be “manipulated” with information, propaganda, etc.. and others believe it’s actually up to each of us to seriously seek facts and truth.. resist confirmation bias, and in general not be susceptible to being “manipulated” from the jump.

    Unfortunately – the awful truth seems to be that a crapload of us can indeed be led down the primrose path – both with products and services and politically and data mining is the process by which they “calibrate” to decide what message will resonate..

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