Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t been able to unstick himself from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook users’ data was harvested by the right-wing ad firm for political gain. And for good reason.
Privacy rights activists say Zuckerberg’s company sold Americans out and helped make millions of Facebook users into subjects of what was effectively a social manipulation experiment. Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook users’ personal information and reportedly used it to spread frequently racist, right-wing propaganda to boost Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Cambridge Analytica has denied using the data to help Trump.)
Now, Zuckerberg is personally facing a lawsuit over the destruction Facebook wrought through what the lawsuit says are its inadequate privacy policies.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a lawsuit Monday against Zuckerberg, arguing the tech mogul should be “held accountable for his role in Facebook violating the District’s consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the protection of user data and their blatant disregard and misuse of sensitive, personal data belonging to District residents.”
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has not yet publicly commented on the case.
According to Racine’s lawsuit, in the mid-2010s, Cambridge Analytica created an app disguised as a personality quiz to collect data from Facebook users. Users who took the quiz turned over their own data as well as their Facebook friends’ data, allegedly giving Cambridge Analytica information about nearly 90 million Americans.
Facebook reached a $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2019 related to what the FTC said was the company’s failure to protect users’ data from the scheme (a small amount relative to its annual profits at the time). But that was only after a whistleblower who worked for Cambridge Analytica testified before Congress a year earlier that Facebook’s efforts to curtail the use of that data were inadequate and delayed.
Racine’s lawsuit is clear in its suggestion that Zuckerberg was personally invested in encouraging the type of data manipulation Cambridge Analytica allegedly committed.
Zuckerberg’s goal, it says, “is to convince people to reveal the most granular details of who they are to Facebook — their religions, their work histories, their likes — so that it can be monetized, and Zuckerberg and his company can continue to grow even wealthier.”
“Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook Platform — in a way that Facebook and Zuckerberg encouraged — to influence and manipulate the outcome of a United States Presidential Election,” the complaint contends.
Racine’s lawsuit is an important and unique attempt to hold a social platform accountable at a time when social media use, and its potentially harmful impacts, are in focus. It’s just the most recent high-profile lawsuit out of Racine’s office, which has also filed a hefty suit against the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, two extremist groups who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. And there’s a fundamental ethos connecting both: Racine’s office has been dogged about punishing people and parties who it says play a role in suppressing democratic freedoms.