One lesson for Facebook, thanks to Cambridge Analytica: With great power comes great responsibility

You and I have a responsibility of being diligent with information spread on social media as well.


  • Facebook has found itself in a grave situation as data of 50 million users were used without explicit consent.

  • What makes the situation worse is that the company Cambridge Analytica used the data to influence voters.

  • In the age of growing social media influence, companies such as Facebook need to be diligent in safeguards to prevent misuse of data.

How many of you took every word you came across on Facebook seriously? There are times I did. And there are countless moments I’ve tried to convince those around me about the perils of depending on social media for all the information we feed ourselves. At the risk of ending friendships, I’ve stood up to elements spreading propaganda. This isn’t my story alone.

Many of my friends are, and I’m sure you’ve experienced similar situations as well. Facebook commands great power in our lives. Coupled along with its other businesses such as WhatsApp and other networks, it reaches billions of people across the globe spanning continents, race, religion, political leaning, gender, and countless other backgrounds, and biases. We’re surrounded by it all day long. Facebook Likes, Notifications, and more recently videos we find on our timelines have got us all hooked on to what is undeniably the world’s largest social network.

The impact of Facebook on our lives

Most of us already on Facebook began by discovering old friends, and reconnecting with old acquaintances using the social network. We didn’t get here to feed ourselves with news, or matters of current affairs. It’s later when those we consider close to us began sharing their opinion on contentious matters and affairs such as politics that things began to change. We went from being friends, to being supporters or discreditors of an ideology.

All along, Facebook was glad. As long as friend argued with friend, brother argued with brother, citizen argued with citizen, engagement was high. Twitter is equally privy to this reality of the social media business. Unfortunately, the US Presidential elections changed all of that. Donald Trump is a democratically elected President. And there are debates around the circumstances that led to his election. And at the center of it is analytics, data, influence, intent and a once little-known (but now popular) UK company called Cambridge Analytica.

The power called Facebook…

Before we realized it, Facebook was center stage in our lives. It was no longer a project by a Harvard sophomore. It was no longer a startup. It was no longer the amalgamation of a young dream. It’s a corporation. Whether we like it or not, or whether we admit it or not, when we get enraged during a political debate with extended family, friends we’ve grown up with all through our lives, we have one common source of information – social media – of which Facebook is king.

According to data by Statista, at the end of Q4 2017, Facebook had 2.2 billion (yes, billion with a b) active monthly users. Not total users, just monthly active users. In fact, Facebook had crossed the billion strong monthly active user base in 2012 itself. Six years later, we only see users growing. The rate of growth may have slowed down, but it still remains a formidable force in the shaping of human psyche in modern society.

The need for responsibility

It’s when disaster strikes that the world tries to find the leech, the scapegoat. The board to pin the blame on. In the current controversy with Cambridge Analytica, the root cause is a research project by a researcher affiliated with Cambridge University named Aleksandr Kogan. To be fair, Kogan created an app that required users to sign in using their Facebook profiles. But it was done for academic purposes. Soon enough, a data and analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, sees opportunity in it, and scales the research up by reaching 50 million users.

Data and information from 50 million users in the hands of a company. As simple as that. The researcher in question, during an interaction with CNN’s Anderson Cooper said he wasn’t aware that the data would be used to target voters. That’s where things stand at the moment.

Also, Silicon Valley stalwarts Mark Zuckerberg, and Sheryl Sandberg are looking to identify what could have possibly gone wrong. It’s evident, everyone, including Facebook has been caught by surprise. This isn’t just another company. This is rank one on the list of best places to work for according to a Glassdoor survey. It hires the best brains in the industry. With the size of audience and the trust reposed in it, expectation and scrutiny are higher and deeper.

What is in it for us to learn

While the dust around this explosive development settles down, it brings us to one core realization. At least it does to me. There is a growing need in this ‘social’ world for greater diligence, and pursuit of the truth. There is a need to take every story, whisper, rumor we hear with a pinch of salt. It’s no coincidence that all major tech companies in the business of social media such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are working towards addressing the menace called fake news.

Not only is it easy to spread chaos through mischievous messages, it could also impact the political environment and civilian life if things got out of hand. So keep calm, and weigh every news story you hear. Till then, let’s hope companies such as Facebook realize their great responsibility in upholding our data and treating it with the respect it deserves.

  • Published Date: March 21, 2018 10:26 AM IST