Academic behind Facebook breach says political influence was exaggerated

The consultancy at the heart of a storm over Facebook data greatly exaggerated its role in Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential victory and would not have been able to sway an election result, the academic who provided the data said.

Facebook has been rocked this week by a whistleblower who said that Cambridge Analytica, a British-based firm hired by Trump for his election campaign, had improperly accessed information on millions of Facebook users to build detailed profiles on American voters.

The revelation has knocked nearly $50 billion off Facebook’s stock market value in two days and hit the shares of Twitter and Snap over fears that a failure by big tech firms to protect personal data could deter advertisers and users, and invite tougher regulation.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have both blamed Aleksandr Kogan, a psychologist at Cambridge University who gathered the data by running a survey app on Facebook.

Kogan told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that he was being made a scapegoat by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, saying the services provided by the political consultancy had been greatly exaggerated.

“I think what Cambridge Analytica has tried to sell is magic, and they’ve made claims that this is incredibly accurate and it tells you everything there is to tell about you. But I think the reality is it’s not that,” he said.

Kogan’s smartphone application, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists”.

Facebook says Kogan then violated its policies by passing the data to Cambridge Analytica for commercial use, saying on Friday he “lied to us”. Cambridge Analytica said it destroyed the data once it realized the information did not adhere to data protection rules.

Kogan said the events of the last week had been a “total shell shock”. “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he said.

“We thought we were doing something that was really normal and we were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the limits of the terms of service.”

Cambridge Analytica has denied various allegations made about its business practices in recent media reports.

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