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No, Facebook political ads didn't “cause Brexit” – but that doesn't mean there is no scandal

Everything you need to know about how Cambridge Analytica used a quiz to harvest data from 50m Facebook users.

For a company which somehow managed to amass one in three of the world’s population among its regular users without attracting serious scrutiny, Facebook suddenly cannot catch a break.

Following a series of bombshell reports in the Observer, New York Times and Channel 4 News, Facebook is once again on the ropes, this time over an apparent data breach affecting 50 million users, connected to Cambridge Analytica – the company accused of using political advertising to convince voters of the merits of Brexit and Donald Trump.

The three outlets have done solid reporting, boosted by the presence of an articulate, on-record, on-camera former employee sporting a shock of pink hair – but, as ever with in-depth tech reporting in the modern era, the story is widely misunderstood and has been prompting all the wrong questions.

What actually happened

At the core of most headlines around this story lies the allegation that Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of around 50 million users, through the use of an online quiz.

This is roughly how it worked: some Cambridge academics designed a quiz which could use your public Facebook likes and other information to predict your personality, based on the widely used OCEAN scale.

Cambridge Analytica, seeing potential in this quiz, started a subsidiary with one of those academics, which then promoted a new version of the quiz designed to harvest data. This quiz was heavily promoted to US users through advertising, and through paying US users to take the quiz.

It’s believed a total of around 270,000 people did some version of this quiz. However, when those users gave Facebook access to their accounts, they were also granting access to the public profile information of all of their Facebook friends – so if your Likes, relationship status, location and similar were set to “viewable by anyone”, they were open to be harvested.

The average Facebook user has more than 300 friends, so it’s not hard to see how this sample of 270,000 users taking the quiz amassed a dataset of 50 million people. This information is at the centre of the story.

Was this against the rules?

This bit gets a little bit complex – but not overly so. Facebook has a set of tools that developers can use to build Facebook features – like open login, or social sharing, or more – into their websites or apps. This is known as an “API”, and at the time the data-harvesting quiz was in operation Facebook’s API allowed for this kind of information to be harvested.

This was controversial at the time, and provoked a privacy backlash – even though the app or website would tell users as they gave authorisation what information it could access, many were (correctly) worried people didn’t properly read those.

Partly in response to these concerns, and partly owing to the fact Facebook hadn’t anticipated people using the API in quite this way to harvest data, an update across 2014/2015 removed this functionality – collecting data in the way this app did has been impossible for more than two years.

Eagle-eyed users of Mechanical Turk – the Amazon-owned service Cambridge Analytica used to recruit test-takers – noticed from privacy notices at the time that the test-takers were being used to collect data on their Facebook friends, and raised concerns on public forums at the time: this was done in plain sight.

That means that to call this a “hack” or a “breach” would be to extend either term to the point of meaningless (obviously that hasn’t stopped lots of outlets doing just that). But just because it lined up with Facebook rules doesn’t mean it’s OK.

The companies can try to say this was at the time possibly within Terms of Service – more on this later – and only took data set to “public”, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t violate users’ reasonable expectations of privacy and responsible data handling. And despite this tool being targeted at US Facebook users, given the international nature of many people’s friendships, there will inevitably be UK and EU citizens within the database – and it’s not clear this would be compliant with EU data rules.

So who knew what, when?

This is the big and important question – and one outlets everywhere have managed to get angry MPs, regulators, and congressmen to ask: when did Facebook know about this data harvesting, and when could politicians have found out about it?

It’s also a very, very easy question to answer: Facebook knew about this in 2015, if for no other reason than a journalist asked them about it and then published their answer – along with all of the other information above.

The actual fact of the data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica was reported in an extensive Guardian investigation in 2015 (which was duly credited in the Observer reporting this week), and has been around for any member of the public, Facebook staff, or any politician around the world.

As occasionally happens with the world’s media (and politicians), everyone has centred in on a point which if they’d followed the story – or done a good search of newspaper cuttings – they could have answered years ago.

The new reporting does reveal some significant new facts for the timeline, though. Between Facebook’s statement and the new articles, it is clear Facebook wrote to Cambridge Analytica in 2016 and said it was their view that the company’s app had violated Facebook rules, and demanded they send back a certified statement saying they had deleted all information harvested in this way. The company did so.

However, sources speaking to the New York Times and Observer appear to have – carefully and cautiously – contradicted that statement, saying they thought it was possible or likely some copies of the data, which they said had been poorly handled and sent without encryption, could still exist.

It’s this allegation which prompted the new action from Facebook of (temporarily, at least for now) suspending Cambridge Analytica from its services, until it has received assurances and evidence all this data was deleted. This is also Facebook’s explanation for suspending the on-record source of the stories from their services – he did, after all, admit to being behind a lot of this data use.

How powerful is all of this data?

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

One of the key things this kind of data would be useful for – and what the original academic study it came from looked into – is finding what Facebook Likes correlate with personality traits, or other Facebook likes.

The dream scenario for this would be to find that every woman in your sample who liked “The Republican Party” also liked “Chick-Fil-A”, “Taylor Swift” and “Nascar racing”. That way, you could target ads at people who liked the latter three – but not the former – knowing you had a good chance of reaching people likely to appreciate the message you’ve got. This is a pretty widely used, but crude, bit of Facebook advertising.

When people talk about it being possible Cambridge Analytica used this information to build algorithms which could still be useful after all the original data was deleted, this is what they’re talking about – and that’s possible, but missing a much, much bigger bit of the picture.

So, everything’s OK then?

No. Look at it this way: the data we’re all getting excited about here is a sample of public profile information from 50 million users, harvested from 270,000 people.

Facebook itself, daily, has access to all of that public information, and much more, from a sample of two billion people – a sample around 7,000 times larger than the Cambridge Analytica one, and one much deeper and richer thanks to its real-time updating status.

If Facebook wants to offer sales based on correlations – for advertisers looking for an audience open to their message, its data would be infinitely more powerful and useful than a small (in big data terms) four-year-out-of-date bit of Cambridge Analytica data.

Facebook aren’t anywhere near alone in this world: every day your personal information is bought and sold, bundled and retraded. You won’t know the name of the brands, but the actual giants in this company don’t deal in the tens of millions with data, they deal with hundreds of millions, or even billions of records – one advert I saw today referred to a company which claimed real-world identification of 340 million people.

This is how lots of real advertising targeting works: people can buy up databases of thousands or millions of users, from all sorts of sources, and turn them into the ultimate custom audience – match the IDs of these people and show them this advert. Or they can do the tricks Cambridge Analytica did, but refined and with much more data behind them (there’s never been much evidence Cambridge Analytica’s model worked very well, despite their sales pitch boasts).

The media has a model when reporting on “hacks” or on “breaches” – and on reporting on when companies in the spotlight have given evidence to public authorities, and most places have been following those well-trod routes.

But doing so is like doing forensics on the burning of a twig, in the middle of a raging forest fire. You might get some answers – but they’ll do you no good. We need to think bigger.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.