Over and over in the last 20 years we’ve watched low-cost or free internet communications platforms spring from the good intentions or social curiosity of tech folk. We’ve watched as these platforms expanded in power and significance, selling their influence to advertisers. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google—they grew so fast. One day they’re a lovable new way to see kid pix, next thing you know they’re reconfiguring democracy, governance, and business.
Facebook’s recent debacle is illustrative. It turns out that the company let a researcher spider through its social network to gather information on 50 million people. Then the Steve Bannon-affiliated, Robert Mercer-backed U.K. data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica used that data to target likely Trump voters. Facebook responded that, no, this was not a “breach.”
For years we’ve been talking and thinking about social networks as interesting tools to model and understand human dynamics. But it’s no longer academic—Facebook has reached a scale where it’s not a model of society as much as an engine of culture. A researcher gained legitimate access to the platform and then just … kept going, and Cambridge Analytica ended up with those 50 million profiles. The “hack” was a true judo move that used the very nature of the platform against itself—like if you gave MacGyver a phone book and he somehow made it into a bomb.