Even for someone paying close attention, the Cambridge Analytica scandal can be wildly confusing. Companies turn out to be shell companies turn out to be campaign contractors, and Facebook’s nebulous rules surrounding privacy and third-party data access don’t help clear things up. There have of course been plenty of explainers from people who know what they’re talking about, but who wants to read those?
Because if you actually want to know how much Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal matters, you need to go to the people who care about Facebook the most. You need to go to the moms.
On Sunday, my own mother agreed to give me a rundown of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal as she understands it. This is the conversation that followed, lightly edited for grammar and continuity. Footnotes can be found below.
How long have you been on Facebook?
Wait, are you interviewing a lot of people?
No, just you.
Oh. What’s the name of the post?
Probably “The Cambridge Analytica Scandal, According To My Mom,” or something along those lines.
Oh, OK. Oh! As I was lying in bed this morning I actually remembered more about what I’d seen on TV. Because I think more clearly in the morning, and —
Well, first, tell me how long you’ve been on Facebook.
Since you first graduated high school. Because, remember, I wanted to see pictures of you. That’s why I got on — I think you put me on it, actually. So, like, nine or 10 years?
And how would you identify politically?
I guess... conservative? Well, kind of, middle-of-the-road Republican, whatever you call it.
Right of center?
Yeah, I guess I would be a little bit right of center.
OK, so now, tell me what you think the Cambridge Analytica scandal is.
Well, the main problem, I guess, is that they got permission from different people on Facebook to use their information — I think they used it for targeted ads. Like, this company wanted to use it for targeted ads, so they got permission. I think it was using an app — at least, that’s what I heard on TV. And these people downloaded the app, and they gave permission for Ana ― whatever, Cambridge Analytica — to use their information.¹ Well, Cambridge Analytica not only used their information from Facebook, but they used all their Facebook friends’ information, too. Which they hadn’t gotten permission to do.² So that’s part of the problem. But I’m not sure if that’s illegal or it’s just wrong to do, or... I don’t know if it’s really illegal, but something about that isn’t on the up and up.³ They shouldn’t have done that!
So then they had information not only on however many thousands of people, now they had information on millions of people, and most of them hadn’t given out permission.
So then I guess what’s-his-name, who runs Facebook —
Mark Zuckerberg! Yeah. I heard that when it happened, Facebook found out that they were doing it and told them not to do it anymore. But that’s all they did, was tell them.⁴ So they still did it. And even though they still did it, Facebook didn’t do anything about it. So that’s why they’re in trouble, because they let it go on.
And when you say they took information, what sort of information did they take?
I don’t know. I guess things that they pick up from people on Facebook, like what sites they look at, what they click on that interests them. I guess, also, they took what they talk about on Facebook, like their political interests, their clothing interests. You know, anything so that they can target ads towards those people. And I guess they also thought that Trump had used — or actually, Trump did use some of their information or bought the rights to use some of that information.⁵ Oh! But I heard that even though he’d bought the rights to use it, he had never actually ended up using it.⁶ This is just what I heard.
On TV. Probably Fox News.
Does it concern you that other people could have this information on you?
Like, as far as me? That they might have my information? I guess, only because then I might start getting more advertisements trying to target me, and I hate advertising. I try to get rid of it all. But I haven’t done or written anything that I would care if anyone knew about. I don’t usually write stuff that I don’t want to be out in public, and anything I click on usually isn’t anything controversial.
And who do you think runs Cambridge Analytica?
Oh, I have no idea.
Would it sound right to say that Steve Bannon had been the vice president of Cambridge Analytica?
Oh, you know, actually, I don’t know if it’s from something I read that you wrote or what, but I do remember reading something that said Steve Bannon — or whoever like that — had a part in it. I don’t remember what it was.⁷
Do you know who the Mercers are?
The Mercers? No.⁸
How much money do you think the Trump campaign spent on Cambridge Analytica?
I don’t know, a couple million? I have no idea. I’m guessing in the millions.⁹
And do you know of anything else Cambridge Analytica did that might have been bad?
Besides this thing with Facebook? No, I don’t think so. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of them.
I mean, like, something that might have come out in the past week or so.
No, that’s all I remember.
So you didn’t hear anything recently about them telling a reporter that they use sex workers to blackmail politicians?
I don’t think — have you written anything about that?
Yeah, I haven’t heard anything about that.¹⁰
OK, so back to the Facebook stuff, are you hesitant at all to use Facebook now?
No, I don’t really care. Because the only way it affects me, that it bothers me, is if I’m going to start getting all these advertisements coming up when I’m looking at stuff. I don’t like that.
Has this scandal affected your opinion of Donald Trump at all?
No. Because you know what? With Trump, I know he has a lot of faults, a lot of things he does that I don’t think he should do, but the fact that, I think, he’s doing well with the economy so far, that other stuff is just personality stuff. Like the tweeting. I don’t like a lot of the tweets that he does, and stuff like that.
So it doesn’t concern you that a guy who was one of Trump’s closest political advisers, Steve Bannon, was involved with a company that said it bribes and entraps politicians?
No, I mean, first of all, is Steve Bannon still working for him?
No, but he was his chief strategist and ran his campaign.
Yeah, but, you know, it doesn’t bother me because all the politicians have weird, sneaky people working for them. I mean Obama did, too. He went to a church, or he was friends with this — what was he? A preacher? I forgot his name — who did a lot of not nice things. So you know, they all do.¹¹ Personally, I think Washington and the politicians and everyone there and the congressmen and senators, they’re all bad. I think you can’t be a really nice person and be in politics. I think you have to be, kind of, willing to do things that aren’t exactly morally right. You have to be willing to do that to actually be a success politically. I think the nice guys, if they get in, they don’t stay in long, maybe because they see how it is and can’t handle it. But I think most of those politicians are not nice people.
And has your opinion of Mark Zuckerberg changed at all?
Yeah, it probably has changed a little. I used to think I really liked him. I actually used to think, when he first started Facebook, and he was really rich and he wasn’t too much older than you and he was Jewish, I thought, oh, he’d be good for you! I used to think that.
But you don’t anymore?
Well, not now, because I see that he kind of ignored that bad stuff, and he seems to have done some things he shouldn’t have done. So he doesn’t seem like such a sweet, nice person that I thought he was at first. Not that I’d be upset if you married him, because I wouldn’t be!
You know he’s already married?
Anything can happen!
So the Cambridge Analytica scandal affected your opinion of Mark Zuckerberg but not Trump?
No, because my opinion of Trump was already that he wasn’t the greatest guy. Like I knew that he had a lot of faults. But some of the things that he’s good at outweigh that for me. Like, I’m more interested in the economy — I just am. And that, I think, is more important than him doing these stupid tweets and stuff like that. Or even, like, I’m sure he fooled around with those hookers,¹² I’m sure he did, but you know, I’m sure a lot of the politicians did stuff like that. It’s just, you didn’t — I mean, Kennedy did it. But that’s not affecting how he runs the country.
What would it take for you to no longer want to use Facebook?
I guess if my... I don’t know. I like using Facebook because my friends and college friends and high school friends are on there. I mean, you’re not on there as much anymore and neither is Jason,¹³ really. But I like it so I can see what those people are doing, my friends from college and high school and people I know but normally wouldn’t have any contact with if it weren’t for Facebook.
But is there anything you could find out about what they might be doing that would make you want to stop using Facebook, or that would make you feel unsafe on Facebook?
Um... I guess if I found out that they had little webcam cameras in there that I didn’t know about, and every time I looked at Facebook they were watching me — I wouldn’t like that. Then I would probably stop using it.¹⁴
Has your opinion of Steve Bannon changed at all?
I never really liked him. He’s kind of creepy-looking anyway.
That’s judgey of you.
Well, I don’t know. He’s just kind of creepy-looking. Plus, like I said, I’m not far right. A lot of the stuff that he talks about I don’t really agree with. And like Breitbart, Breitbart is way too far right for me. I’m more in the middle.
What’s your main source of news, would you say?
Well, on TV, it’s probably more Fox News. But sometimes when I want to hear the other side, I’ll listen to CNN or MSNBC for a little while. But then they’re both — both sides, Fox News and all those are just so slanted one way or the other, it’s hard to find something that’s just explaining the news.
You should just ask me to explain it.
You’re slanted, too! You always give an opinion. I liked your article about the dolphin, though. I thought that was cute!
Those were all my questions. Is there anything else notable you think you learned from hearing about the scandal?
Well, I already knew that they use your information to give you targeted ads, because I get them all the time if I click on something, and then I start getting all this stuff. Like, I don’t like that, but it doesn’t make me stop using it. Because it’s just an annoyance.
OK, I think that’s it.
Oh! Now that it’s over, what did you think of my answers?
You got more right than I expected, actually! But a lot of it was still extremely wrong.¹⁵
¹ People were under the impression that they were just granting access to “thisisyourdigitallife,” a personality quiz app, and its creator, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University professor who’d been recruited by Cambridge Analytica.
² Under Facebook’s rules, while Kogan was allowed to harvest data from the friends of people who had used the app, he was not allowed to sell it to a third party.
³ At this point, it’s not actually clear whether Cambridge Analytica’s actions were illegal, as far as its use of Facebook data is concerned. If there was lawbreaking involved, it would likely have been due to the fact that Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, as a foreign national, should have recused himself from any involvement with a U.S. political campaign, which he of course did not.
⁴ Technically, in 2015, Facebook also made Cambridge Analytica promise real hard that it’d destroyed the data it was never supposed to have had in the first place. Cambridge Analytica assured Facebook it had done so (although it hadn’t), and Facebook apparently saw no need to check further.
⁵ It wasn’t so much that the Trump campaign bought the rights to use Cambridge Analytica’s data as it was that Cambridge Analytica, a company created by Trump donors and supporters, was working directly with the Trump campaign.
⁶ He definitely did.
⁷ Steve Bannon was indeed the vice president of Cambridge Analytica until he stepped down to take over the Trump campaign.
⁸ The Mercers, specifically the father-daughter team of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, are conservative, billionaire Trump supporters with deep ties to Bannon. Over the past few years, they’ve funneled $15 million of funding into their pet project, Cambridge Analytica.
⁹ $5.9 million.
¹⁰ Well, they did.
¹¹ She probably means Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor and the source of considerable controversy during Obama’s 2008 campaign. Wright didn’t have anything to do with breaking election laws, but he did say a number of egregiously true things, like that America has “more black men in prison than there are in college” and that America is “deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers... We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Gaddafi.”
¹⁵ Facebook collects more than just your profile info. It also tracks your browsing history. It records all your “likes.” And then it rounds out whatever it’s culled from this internal surveillance with personal data purchased from a number of brokers, including financial information. Facebook is valuable largely because it makes this large mass of data about you available to third parties, who are in effect purchasing your attention. The potential for abuse is enormous, and Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds are just one very prominent example.