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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

The fall of Cambridge Analytica speaks to the enduring power of traditional media

Nevertheless, the subsistence of internet giants on user data means the battle to claw back privacy continues

Workers clean the windows of the building which housed the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London. Tolga Akmen / AFP
Workers clean the windows of the building which housed the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London. Tolga Akmen / AFP

The rap sheet of Cambridge Analytica makes for explosive reading. The small UK firm is alleged to have improperly acquired the personal data of 50 million Facebook users, assisted Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and used entrapment, bribery and fear-mongering to manipulate elections from Kenya to Latvia. Yesterday, the company announced that it would immediately shut down all operations, after losing “virtually all” customers and suppliers. In many ways it reflects the changing times, with millions of users demanding answers and improving their digital knowledge.

Celebration should be tempered by the knowledge that the problem runs far deeper. The reckless collection of user data has ensued for years, spawning third parties which exploit data harvesting for advertising, analysis and, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, political campaigning. The revelations have opened the eyes of Facebook’s more than 2.2 billion users to just how much data they have surrendered. Although chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before the US Congress, the resignation this week of WhatsApp founder and chief executive Jan Koum, reportedly over Facebook’s desire to extract WhatsApp user data for security and advertising, indicates how little has actually changed. Facebook, Google and others still subsist on user data and as a result the arduous battle to claw back privacy continues.

The collapse of Cambridge Analytica does, though, suggest a different victory. It was not Facebook – which learned of the firm’s activities in 2015 – that brought it down, but traditional media. Media organisations in the UK and US unearthed its activities and filmed its chief executive boasting about its perverse strategies. In an age of misinformation, fake news and trial by social media, traditional media is too often overlooked. Just 24 hours after the Financial Times published an investigation into the misogynistic charity fundraiser in January, the President’s Club shut down. If historic sex abuse allegations against senior Vatican Cardinal George Pell are found to be true, the world will have one tenacious journalist to thank. A day after World Press Freedom day, it is worth remembering the enduring power of traditional media. Cambridge Analytica is one scalp of many for an industry that has rarely felt so important.