Facebook Is Battling One of the Worst Data Leaks in Its History

Facebook has come under severe scrutiny following recent exposés by The New York Times and The UK Guardian revealing that a voter-profiling firm harvested the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission.

Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company headquartered in New York, exploited the social media profiles to develop tools and techniques to, according to the Times, “identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior.” The firm obtained the data through an outside researcher who told Facebook it was for academic purposes.

While conventional analytics firms use voting data or purchasing histories to “predict” voting behaviors or political beliefs, Cambridge mined social media profiles for distinct psychological traits and idiosyncrasies that would be crucial in designing political messages to impact the American electorate. During the 2016 election, the company worked for the campaigns of Senator Ted Cruz and then Republican nominee, Donald Trump. They even began testing out key Trumpian slogans like “Drain the Swamp” and “Build the Wall” as far back as 2014. The firm also reportedly influenced the Brexit referendum and elections in Kenya, Nigeria, India and the Czech Republic.

The scandal has provoked public ire around the world. Politicians in the U.S., U.K. and E.U. have summoned CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify on data privacy and election manipulation. Investors are suing the company and Facebook’s stocks have plummeted, wiping away nearly $50 billion. Public outrage over the data breach has also sparked a global #DeleteFacebook campaign.

Unsurprisingly, the American public is becoming increasingly wary of their privacy online. A 2017 Harris Poll found that privacy is a number one priority for Americans and 97% of them say it’s important that they have rights to their own data. In fact, a vast majority (82%) are most excited for technology that protects their privacy, and makes them and their families safer (81%).

Although Facebook earned a “good” reputation on The Harris Poll’s Reputation Quotient study, rising up the ranks from #66 in 2017 to #51 in 2018, the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, previous backlash over its role in teenage social media addiction and ongoing calls to leave the platform en masse can not bode well for its reputation and emotional appeal in the coming months.