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Researcher believes Cambridge Analytica/Facebook controversy reflects “common shady practice”

Saiph Savage

Saiph Savage

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A West Virginia University researcher has investigated how trolls on the subreddit "/r/The_Donald” organized to create pro-Trump campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

Saiph Savage, assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has worked with a team which includes Andy Barr, a data scientist and consultant from Seattle, to investigate how political trolls produce collective action to create content and disrupt other communities.

Savage believes that on the topic of Cambridge Analytica it is important to consider that what this company did is unfortunately now a somewhat common shady practice.

"Many companies around the world provide users with games or small web services in exchange for your data, often given willingly by users in the benign-looking Facebook authorization screen that most users simply ignore," Savage says. "These companies with shady practices, generally make far more from selling your data (to data brokers or directly to advertisers) than the actual product the user sees and possibly pays for. While I do think that we need to hold Cambridge Analytica responsible for how they used people’s data. I also think that we really need to think about making Facebook accountable for allowing other companies to easily access data and not be straightforward about how it is used."

She goes on to say that in order to restore public and regulatory trust in platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, it is likely we will see some form of “audit” developed over the ensuing months of widespread conversations on this topic.

Savage questions what kind of accountability measures will be satisfactory to people and the large companies that have invested billions of dollars into obtaining this high-quality data.

She outlines a number of questions still to be answered.

"For instance, we do not know if Facebook offered different advertising prices for the Trump Campaign and the Clinton Campaign," Savage says. "Given that salespeople likely worked with algorithms to come up with these prices, it will be very hard to determine conclusively if there was favoritism exhibited by the companies. Is Facebook offering a different set of private user data to political parties or initivaties that are in line with their goals or viewpoints of their board? Are they limiting actors that are not aligned with their viewpoints? Even the question of whether they should, as a private company, be really subject to this scrutiny is an interesting one to consider? Is Facebook offering a fair playing field for all political actors? Are they obligated to do so?"

Ultimately, Savage believes that society will need to answer those questions and consider what kind of accountability it desires from large tech companies that some argue function as "public utilities."

Savage can be reached at 304.293.8919 or  

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise, or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



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