Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Are You a Total Sucker?



What Famous Queen Are You? How Well Do You Know Your BFF? Which Game of Thrones Character Would You Fall in Love With? Which City Should You Visit in 2018? Are You a Sensitive Person?

As is obvious to anyone who's been on Facebook for any length of time, these are just a few of the thousands of "quizzes" that may pop up in your timeline as you scroll through to see what your sister is up to in Cleveland. You may know the answers to some of those questions because you took the quizzes. If so, you've taken another quiz without knowing it.

It's called, Are You a Total Sucker? And the answer is most likely, Yes.

Actually, even if you didn't take the quiz but "Liked" a friend's post about his or her quiz results, you're probably a total sucker. In fact, there are, at latest count, about 50 million suckers who've had the personal information that's linked to their Facebook account "harvested" by a company called Cambridge Analytica.

And it's a big deal because that information was being marketed to political campaigns around the world — including Donald Trump's — and used to influence voters.

Facebook says Cambridge Analytica obtained — and retained — the information illegally. Last Friday, in an attempt to get out in front of a story being published by the Observer of London, Facebook said 250,000 accounts had been compromised. The next day, the Observer and The New York Times both reported that the number of accounts harvested was 50 million. Which, to be fair to Facebook, is close to 250,000, right?

All this information came out thanks to a whistle-blower named Christopher Wylie (no relation to Christopher Steele), who recounted some truly harrowing tales to Observer reporter, Carole Cadwalladr: "[Wylie] came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the U.S., and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

"'We 'broke' Facebook,'" he says.

"And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon."

Whoa, if true! And it's true. Turns out Cambridge Analytica is owned by Republican oligarch Robert Mercer, who hired Steve Bannon to run the Facebook profile-harvesting operation. In remarkable stories in the Observer, its sister paper, The Guardian, and The New York Times, much, much more was revealed, including the fact that Russian money (Surprise!) was also funneled into Cambridge Analytica a few years back.

Cadwalladr worked with Wylie for over a year to expose Cambridge Analytica's operations. In so doing, she may have saved democracy. Her reporting revealed that Cambridge Analytica was involved in Great Britain's surprising Brexit election and other elections around the world that may have served as test cases for the organization's operation in the U.S. election of 2016.

In England, the government is up in arms, demanding investigations and freezing Cambridge Analytica operations there. Calls are being made for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify to government investigators.

In the U.S., as you might expect, not so much, though "concerns" are being expressed by the usual GOP suspects.

As what is potentially the greatest spy/espionage story in U.S. history plays out in the coming weeks and months, I urge everyone to read as much real journalism about the subject as possible. It's coming from national and international sources with a reputation for solid reporting — The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and, increasingly from the Guardian and Observer. I also urge you to support these entities with your dollars by buying online subscriptions. The Guardian and Observer don't have paywalls but do offer simple ways to contribute to their work on their websites.

Good journalism is expensive to do, but the Fourth Estate is the best defense we have against being manipulated by the dark forces now arrayed against the world's democracies.

And don't take any more Facebook quizzes. You already know which Game of Thrones character you'd like to fall in love with, anyway.

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