Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and the Fallout So Far

Revelations that digital consultants to the Trump campaign misused the data of millions of Facebook users set off a furor on both sides of the Atlantic. This is how The Times covered it.

The headquarters of Cambridge Analytica in London. The company has faced a backlash after using Facebook to create psychological profiles of voters.
Credit...Jack Taylor/Getty Images

In March, The New York Times, working with The Observer of London and The Guardian, obtained a cache of documents from inside Cambridge Analytica, the data firm principally owned by the right-wing donor Robert Mercer. The documents proved that the firm, where the former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon was a board member, used data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles. The news put Cambridge under investigation and thrust Facebook into its biggest crisis ever. Here’s a guide to our coverage.

March 17

The Times reported that in 2014 contractors and employees of Cambridge Analytica, eager to sell psychological profiles of American voters to political campaigns, acquired the private Facebook data of tens of millions of users — the largest known leak in Facebook history.

There was more. Our article first showed how Cambridge received warnings from its own lawyer, Laurence Levy, as it employed European and Canadian citizens on campaigns, potentially violating American election law. The Times also found that tranches of raw data still existed beyond Facebook’s control.

Read how researchers may have used your Facebook “likes” to predict your political views.

In a companion piece, The Times reported that people at Cambridge Analytica and its British affiliate, the SCL Group, were in contact with executives from Lukoil, the Kremlin-linked oil giant, as Cambridge built its Facebook-derived profiles. Lukoil was interested in the ways data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders. SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature and said the oil giant never became a client.

ImagePresident Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, left, with Vagit Alekperov, head of the oil giant Lukoil, which was in talks with Cambridge Analytica employees.
Credit...Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin, via Reuters

March 18

The articles drew an instant response in Washington, where lawmakers demanded that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, testify before Congress. Democrats looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election — already interested in Cambridge’s role in providing analytics to the Trump campaign — said they would seek an investigation into the leak. They were echoed by lawmakers in Britain investigating Cambridge Analytica’s role in disinformation and the country’s referendum to leave the European Union.

March 20

The Times reported that Cambridge suspended its chief executive, Alexander Nix, after a British television channel released an undercover video in which he suggested that the company had used seduction and bribery to entrap politicians and influence foreign elections. In Washington, the Federal Trade Commission moved to investigate whether Facebook had violated an early agreement to safeguard user data.

Credit...Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, via Shutterstock

March 21

The Times reported on a growing number of Facebook users, including the singer Cher, deleting their accounts — and broke news of the departure of Facebook’s top security official, who had clashed with other executives on how to handling discontent over the platform’s role in spreading disinformation. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook began trending on Twitter.

After remaining silent for days — spurring another social media hashtag, #WheresZuck? — Mr. Zuckerberg spoke with The Times about steps Facebook was taking to address users’ anger.

Our columnist Brian X. Chen explains how to protect your Facebook data.

March 23

As Facebook reeled, The Times delved into the relationship between Cambridge Analytica and John Bolton, the conservative hawk named national security adviser by President Trump. The Times broke the news that in 2014, Cambridge provided Mr. Bolton’s “super PAC” with early versions of its Facebook-derived profiles — the technology’s first large-scale use in an American election.

What about 2016? We examined the skepticism and evidence around the role Cambridge claimed it played in Mr. Trump’s win.

Cambridge Analytica helped develop ads for candidates supported by John Bolton's “super PAC.”

March 24

The Times and The Observer reported allegations that the 2016 “Brexit” campaign used a Cambridge Analytica contractor to help skirt election spending limits. The story implicated two senior advisers to Prime Minister Theresa May. Testifying to Parliament a few days later, a former Cambridge employee, Christopher Wylie, contended that the company helped swing the results in favor of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

March 28

Credit...Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

In another report, The Times showed how an employee at Palantir Technologies — an intelligence contractor founded by the Trump backer and tech investor Peter Thiel — helped Cambridge harvest Facebook data. The article reported that Palantir and Cambridge executives briefly considered a formal partnership to work on political campaigns. Though the deal fell through, a Palantir employee continued working with Cambridge to figure out how to obtain data for psychographic profiles. Palantir officials said the employee did so in a strictly personal capacity.

April 4

The Times originally reported that Cambridge harvested data from over 50 million Facebook users. But at the bottom of a company announcement about new privacy features, Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, issued a new estimate for the number of users who were affected: as many as 87 million, most of them in the United States.

Facebook is responding to users’ distrust. Read how the company introduced a central privacy page.

April 8

Amid the crisis, one set of voices remained notably absent: Facebook users whose data was harvested. So The Times found some, and their reactions ranged from anger to resigned annoyance at how tech giants use personal information. As one of the affected Facebook users put it, “You are the product on the internet.”

The Times also reported new details on the app used to collect data for Cambridge Analytica. It was no simple Facebook quiz, as many had assumed. Rather, it was attached to a lengthy psychology questionnaire hosted by Qualtrics, a company that manages online surveys. The first step for those filling out the questionnaire was to grant access to their Facebook profiles. Once they did, an app then harvested their data and that of their friends.

April 10



Congress vs. Mark Zuckerberg: The Key Moments

In a hearing held in response to revelations of data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, faced questions from senators on a variety of issues, from privacy to the company’s business model.

“Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” “Um — no.” “If you’ve messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” “Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here.” “I think that may be what this is all about.” “In 2015, we heard the report that this developer Aleksandr Kogan had sold data to Cambridge Analytica.” “Did you or senior leadership do an inquiry to find out who at Facebook had this information and did they not have a discussion about whether or not the users should be informed back in December of 2015?” “Senator, in retrospect, I think we clearly view it as a mistake that we didn’t inform people. And we did that based on false information that we thought that the case was closed, and that the data had been deleted.” “So there was a decision made on that basis not to inform the users. Is that correct?” “That’s my understanding, yes.” “I assume Facebook’s been served with subpoenas from the special counsel Mueller’s office. Is that correct?” “Yes. Actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be. But I know we’re working with them.” “Thank you.” “If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?” “The average American uses eight different apps —” “O.K.” “— to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people —” “O.K.” “— ranging from text apps —” “— which is —” — to email.” “Which is the same service you provide.” “Well, we provide a number of different services.” “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” “It overlaps with a portion of what we do.” “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” “O.K.” [audience laughs] “Do you need to look behind shell corporations in order to find out who is really behind the content that’s being posted? And if you may need to look behind a shell corporation, how will you go about doing that? How will you get back to the true, what lawyers would call ‘beneficial owner’ of the site that is putting out the political material?” “So what we’re going to do is require a valid government identity and we’re going to verify the location. So we’re going to do that, so that way someone sitting in Russia, for example, couldn’t say that they’re in America and therefore able to run an election ad.” “But if they were running through a corporation domiciled in Delaware, you wouldn’t know that they were actually a Russian owner.” “Senator, that’s— that’s correct.”

Video player loading
In a hearing held in response to revelations of data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, faced questions from senators on a variety of issues, from privacy to the company’s business model.CreditCredit...Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Mr. Zuckerberg made his first appearance before Congress, testifying to Senate and House committees. First up was the Senate, where he faced tough questions about the company’s mishandling of data, and said Facebook was investigating “tens of thousands of apps” to see what information they harvested.

The next day, he faced an even tougher crowd in the House. There, the consensus was that social media technology — and its potential for abuse — had far outpaced Washington, and that Congress may have to step in to close the gap. Even Mr. Zuckerberg seemed to suggest he could be open to some regulation, but neither he nor lawmakers seemed sure about how exactly to regulate the new breed of companies.

Credit...Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

On the same day as the Senate hearing, The Times reported how the Cambridge furor had impacted the Mercers, particularly Mr. Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, who leads the family’s political network. Shortly after the scandal broke, a friend of hers visited Facebook headquarters to plead the case for Cambridge. Though the Mercers were once Mr. Trump’s leading patrons in conservative politics, their standing in the president’s circle has suffered.

April 19

The Times reported on a series of assessments of Facebook’s privacy programs, conducted by the consulting firm PwC on behalf of federal regulators. In the assessments, mandated by a 2011 consent decree, PwC deemed Facebook’s internal controls effective at protecting users’ privacy — even after the social media giant lost control of a huge trove of user data that was improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica.

Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting.