Mark Zuckerberg Apologized on CNN for Cambridge Analytica Data Misuse—But Also Deflected Blame

At least he said he was sorry. Mark Zuckerberg's apology came early in his prime-time interview with CNN's Laurie Segall, after another day of insistent questions about the 50 million Facebook user profiles that data firm Cambridge Analytica may have improperly used to sway the 2016 presidential election.

"I'm really sorry that this happened," Zuckerberg said at the opening of the interview, to the certain delight of however many crisis communications professionals had to coach the media-averse 33-year-old billionaire, whose company has 2.2 billion active users around the world. Clad in a gray t-shirt, sitting in front of an appropriately sunny Menlo Park, California, background, Zuckerberg tried to project the image of a well-intentioned young entrepreneur who had been ensnared by malignant forces beyond his control.

"If you told me in 2004, when I was getting started with Facebook, that a big part of my responsibility today would be to help protect the integrity of elections against interference by other governments, you know, I wouldn't have really believed that," Zuckerberg said, alluding both to his days as a Harvard undergraduate and to Russia's use of Facebook to spread misinformation in a way that favored Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Cambridge Analytica's "psychographic" tools were also used by the Trump campaign to target voters. While the effectiveness of these tools is difficult to determine, the company's own executives believe them to have been vastly influential. "We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow," one Cambridge Analytica executive boasted, "give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape."

If Cambridge Analytica injected the data, Facebook was the supplier. That fact made Zuckerberg's contrition somewhat suspect, even as he evinced a commitment to greater protections for users of the platform, most of whom would probably like to share videos of a beach vacation or photos of a departed feline without worrying about the political ramifications of doing so.

"We have a basic responsibility to protect people's data and if we can't do that then we don't deserve to have the opportunity to serve people," Zuckerberg said. He said that Facebook had implemented stricter privacy procedures, and could continue to do so. And he said it was dishonesty on the part of Cambridge Analytica and the researcher who developed its data-scraping application, Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan, that was to blame.

Kogan, unsurprisingly, disagrees, writing that that he has been "basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica." He asserts that there was nothing deceptive about the widely-disseminated personality test he developed.

In his CNN interview, Zuckerberg conveniently elided the fact that Facebook learned in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had accessed data from millions of users of the social network. It did not alert users to that fact. Now that the extent to which Facebook data was used a tool of electoral targeting has been revealed — in lengthy articles published by The New York Times and London's Guardian — the company is being forced to explain what it did, what it knew, and what it kept to itself. Prior to the CNN interview, Zuckerberg published a post on his Facebook page. "While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn't change what happened in the past," it said. The post, like the CNN interview, made accusations about Kogan and Cambridge Analytica while casting Facebook in the role of unwitting victim.

And though Facebook has vowed to protect users, and provide further clarity about how user data is shared, the sharing of that data is central to its business model. That model "hinges on getting people to spend time on the site so the company can harvest targeted data about them and profit from it," the information systems exert Uri Gal has written. Cambridge Analytica was not only suitor for Facebook's data, as outraged users have discovered.

Looks like I've authorized 110 apps in Facebook. Each one has to be deleted individually and then after you click to delete it asks if you are really really sure and you have to click again.

Will return to this setting page when I have time to click 110 tiny Xs.

— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) March 22, 2018

In fact, in the interview's most revealing exchange, Zuckerberg all but admitted that others could have similarly abused the information scraped from Facebook. "It's hard to know what we'll find," he dourly acknowledged.

Zuckerberg's carefully qualified mea culpa is unlikely to satisfy members of Congress, especially Democrats who hold Facebook responsible — whether fairly or not — for handing the election to Trump. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for Zuckerberg to testify. Asked by CNN's Segall if he would, in fact, cooperate with such a request, Zuckerberg equivocated, saying that he would be "happy" to appear, if he were in fact the person best equipped to do so. It seems more likely that any testimony on Capitol Hill will come from Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.

Zuckerberg generally downplayed Facebook's role in the 2016 election, claiming that it was "really hard" to say whether the social media network swayed the eventual outcome. And while he did allude to "some new tactics" the Kremlin may use in the 2018 congressional elections — about which U.S. intelligence agencies have already issued warnings — he did not go into specifics. He did say that artificial intelligence tools were successful in halting Russian disinformation activity during the 2017 election in France.

Zuckerberg smiled once during the interview, when asked about fatherhood. "I really just care about building something that my girls are going to grow up and be proud of me for," he said. "That's what is kind of my guiding philosophy at this point."