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The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal: what are the implications for human rights and democracy?

Written by Sonya Rahaman* |

As the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg faces two days of US Congressional Hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we at the Human Rights Consortium, are forced to ask, what are the implications for social media, in terms of its interaction with democracy and human rights?  Can social media be trusted as a tool to facilitate human rights discussion and promulgation or is it a tool which can subvert the will of the people, liberal democracies and human rights?

Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that as the CEO of Facebook, he is responsible for the breaches in data privacy that were revealed by a whistle-blower at Cambridge Analytica, as part of a Channel 4 exposé.  The breach of data privacy of 87 million Facebook users, in the run up to the 2016 US Presidential Election, is a serious cause of concern not only from the perspective of democracy but for human rights, too.  Facebook has 2 billion worldwide users and in the past has been credited with being a platform of resistance to government restrictions on human rights and a way of maintaining freedom of expression.  An example of this was the use of Facebook in the Arab Spring movement from December 2010 to February 2011, which saw the organisation and overturning of several Middle Eastern states from Tunisia to Syria.   As, Zuckerberg himself addressed in his written statement released ahead of his appearance before the US Congress on Tuesday 10th April 2018,  the #MeToo movement was partly attributed to organisation on Facebook, ‘just recently, we’ve seen the #MeToo movement and the March for Our Lives, organized, at least in part, on Facebook.’

Indeed, the utility of Facebook and other social media platforms, like Twitter, have made it easier to connect and facilitate interest in human rights activism and access human rights scholarship, beyond the realms of academia.  This has certainly been the experience of the International Journal of Human Rights which is affiliated with the Human Rights Researchers’ Network, and which forms part of the Human Rights Consortium.  It has ostensibly raised the profile of human rights research and activism.

While human rights organisations have embraced social media and are working on methods of effectively utilising it as a tool for the protection of human rights and to galvanise social movements, the recent revelations of the utilisation of Facebook data privacy by third parties to effect populist movements poses great threats to human rights activists.  Can the data privacy and safety of human rights activists working to protect human rights against government restrictions be guaranteed by a social media platform that has admitted it has not been robust in its policing of the use of data by third parties?  Is the only way to ensure the safety of human rights scholars, academics and activists, through regulation of social media outfits like, Facebook?  Is there an alternative for the global human rights movement to gain support of ordinary citizens against populist movements without utilising social media?

Another problem posed by the scandal is the ramifications of the lock down on data, started by Facebook in February 2018, for academics conducting legitimate research in the humanities, including human rights academics.  As Senior Lecturer, Annabel Latham of Manchester Metropolitan University, has stated in her article, Cambridge Analytica scandal: legitimate researchers using Facebook data could be collateral damage (The Conversation, 20th March 2018), ‘it is right to believe that researchers and their employers value research integrity. But instances where trust has been betrayed by an academic – even if it’s the case that data used for university research purposes wasn’t caught in the crossfire – will have a negative impact on whether participants will continue to trust researchers.’

Scholars are not the only ones concerned by the impact of social media on freedom of expression and research.  For human rights organisations, like, Human Rights Watch , who had already started to question the role of social media and effective utilisation of its tools on 28th January 2017, in its Podcast, The Impact of Social Media on Human Rights, there are also concerns about the future relationship between Facebook/social media and human rights protection.

Only the next days and weeks will begin to expose the options for human rights and pro-democracy activists.  What is clear is that the solution to regulation of social media giants like, Facebook, requires not only action from the US and UK governments.  It requires a global response, done in cooperation with Facebook and other social media giants, and also inclusion of the human rights community to safeguard the rights of users and human rights activists and scholars.


*Sonya Rahaman is in the third year of her doctoral studies at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Sonya is also the Social Media Editor of the International Journal of Human Rights and coordinator of the Human Rights Researchers Network (HRRN).