The bitter truth buried in recent headlines about how the political consulting company – Cambridge Analytica – used social media and messaging, primarily Facebook and WhatsApp, to try to sway voters in presidential elections in the US and Kenya is simply this: Facebook is the reason why fake news is here to stay.
Various news outlets, and former Cambridge Analytica executives themselves, confirmed that the company used campaign speeches, surveys, and, of course, social media and social messaging to influence Kenyans in both 2013 and 2017.
The media reports also revealed that, working on behalf of US President Donald Trump’s campaign, Cambridge Analytica had got hold of data from 50 million Facebook users, which they sliced and diced to come up with “psychometric” profiles of American voters.
The political data company’s tactics have drawn scrutiny in the past, so the surprise of these revelations came more from the “how” than the “what.” The real stunner was learning how complicit Facebook and WhatsApp, which is owned by the social media behemoth, had been in aiding Cambridge Analytica in its work.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal appears to be symptomatic of much deeper challenges that Facebook must confront if it’s to become a force for good in the global fight against false narratives.
These hard truths include the fact that Facebook’s business model is built upon an inherent conflict of interest. The others are the company’s refusal to take responsibility for the power it wields and its inability to come up with a coherent strategy to tackle fake news.
Facebook’s biggest challenges
Facebook’s first issue is its business model. It has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar corporation because its revenue comes from gathering and using the data shared by its audience of 2.2 billion monthly users.
Data shapes the ads that dominate our news feeds. Facebook retrieves information from what we like, comment on and share; the posts we hide and delete; the videos we watch; the ads we click on; the quizzes we take. It was, in fact, data sifted from one of these quizzes that Cambridge Analytica bought in 2014. Facebook executives knew of this massive data breach back then but chose to handle the mess internally. They shared nothing with the public.
This makes sense if the data from that public is what fuels your company’s revenues. It doesn’t make sense, however, if your mission is to make the world a more open and connected place, one built in transparency and trust. A corporation that says it protects privacy while also making billions of dollars from data, sets itself up for scandal.
This brings us to Facebook’s second challenge: its myopic vision of its own power. As repeated scandals and controversies have washed over the social network in the last couple of years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response generally has been one of studied naivete. He seems to be in denial about his corporation’s singular influence and position.
Case in point: When it became clear in 2016 that fake news had affected American elections, Zuckerberg first dismissed that reality as “a pretty crazy idea.” In this latest scandal, he simply said nothing for days.
Throughout the world, news publishers report that 50% to 80% of their digital traffic comes from Facebook. No wonder Google and Facebook control 53% of the world’s digital and mobile advertising revenue. Yet Zuckerberg still struggles to accept that Facebook’s vast audience and its role as a purveyor of news and information combine to give it extraordinary power over what people consume, and by extension, how they behave.
All of this leads us to Facebook’s other challenge: its inability to articulate, and act on, a cogent strategy to attack fake news.
The fake news phenomenon
When Zuckerberg finally surfaced last month, he said out loud what a lot of people were already were thinking: there may be other Cambridge Analyticas out there.
This is very bad news for anyone worried about truth and democracy. For in America, fake news helped to propel into power a man whose presidential campaign may have been a branding exercise gone awry. But in countries like Kenya, fake news can kill.
Zuckerberg and his Facebook colleagues must face this truth. Fake news may not create tribal or regional mistrust, but inflammatory videos and posts shared on social media certainly feed those tensions.
And false narratives spread deep and wide: In 2016, BuzzFeed News found that in some cases, a fake news story was liked, commented and shared almost 500,000 times. A legitimate political news story might attract 75,000 likes, comments and shares.
After Zuckerberg was flogged for his initial statements about fake news, Facebook reached out to the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-checking Network in an effort to attack this scourge. Then in January 2018, the social network said that it was going to be more discriminating about how much news it would allow to find its way into the feeds of its users. In other words, more videos on cats and cooking, less news of any kind.
The policy sowed a lot of confusion and showed that Facebook is still groping for how to respond to fake news. It was also evidence that the social network does not understand that fake news endangers its own existence as well as the safety and security of citizens worldwide –- especially in young democracies such as Kenya.
Angry lawmakers in the US and Europe, along with a burgeoning rebellion among its vast audience, may finally grab Facebook’s attention. But we will only hear platitudes and see superficial change unless Facebook faces hard truths about its reliance on data, accepts its preeminent place in today’s media ecosystem and embraces its role in fighting fake news.
Until then, we should brace ourselves for more Cambridge Analyticas.
Kenya’s Consolidated Bank said on Monday it was seeking an investor, either foreign or local, to inject 3.5 billion Kenyan shillings ($34.21 million) as part of its balance sheet reorganisation.
In a statement published in local newspapers, the state-owned bank asked investors to send in their prequalifications as a first step by Jan. 9, 2019.
In late November, Consolidated Bank said it had given its directors permission to allot up to 3.5 billion shillings in new preference shares to an unidentified investor and that the reorganisation of its balance sheet was a precursor to privatisation at a later date.
The bank has 17 branches and assets of over 12.5 billion shillings.
The National Treasury owns 85.8 percent of the bank, with the rest of the shares held by other government agencies.
($1 = 102.3000 Kenyan shillings)
Nigeria’s main opposition People’s Democratic Party said the bank accounts of its vice presidential candidate had been frozen in an act of intimidation by the government ahead of February general elections.
The accounts of Peter Obi, his wife, family members and their businesses had been blocked “by agencies” of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, the PDP said in a statement late Saturday.
“Since his nomination, Peter Obi, apart from facing a series of failed attempts to destroy his reputation, has also continued to receive all manner of threats and blackmail, including threats to his life and those of his wife and children,” the party said.
A spokesman for Buhari, Femi Adesina, referred Bloomberg’s queries to the nation’s anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Its spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.
Buhari came to power in 2015 vowing to clamp down on endemic corrruption. Critics have accused him of using his anti-graft campaign as a pretext to quash political opponents. The main challenger to the 75-year-old former general’s path to a second term is PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, 72, who was vice president from 1999 to 2007. Obi, a former governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, was chosen as Abubakar’s running mate in October.
The PDP said in its statement that Buhari’s All Progressives Congress was using “smear campaigns” and “direct attacks” on Abubakar and Obi ahead of the vote, scheduled for Feb. 16.
KPMG LLP, the auditor that shed clients and staff after scandals in South Africa, apologizes for its “misdeeds” and wants a second chance to reestablish its business in the country, Chairman Wiseman Nkuhlu said.
The firm, one of the so-called big four global auditing companies, confessed to publishing a misleading report on the South African Revenue Service that led to a police probe of a former finance minister, did work for the Gupta family who have been implicated in corruption scandals linked to former president Jacob Zuma, and acted as an auditor for a bank that collapsed due to alleged fraud. Its eight top staff resigned in September 2017, some of the biggest companies in South Africa have replaced it as their auditors and in June it said its workforce had shrunk to 2,200 from 3,400.
“KPMG had made a lot of serious mistakes and lost the trust of the public and clients,” Nkuhlu said in an advertisement placed in South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper. “We had lost sight of our responsibility to serve the broader public interest.”
The company is one of a number of international firms that have apologized for their conduct during the nine-year rule of Zuma, which ended in February, during which time corruption at state companies became endemic. Bain & Co. has started an independent probe into its own work for South Africa’s tax service, while McKinsey & Co. and SAP SE have accepted responsibility for improper work done for state-owned companies.
“We know we made mistakes and we will accept responsibility, as appropriate, for our misdeeds,” Nkuhlu said. “In return, I would like to make an appeal to South Africa business, government and the public. An appeal for your recognition that KPMG South Africa is today a very different business to what it was 18 months ago.”
The company, which has lost clients including Barclays Africa Group Ltd. and Dimension Data Plc, is seeking to win back trust, he said.
We “appeal for your permission, for KPMG South Africa and the thousands of South Africans who work for it, to continue to play a positive role in the business community and the life of the nation,” he said.