Social media giant Facebook and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica are embroiled in a controversy over the alleged use of personal data to influence the outcomes of the 2016 US Presidential Election or the Brexit Referendum.

The allegations have been met with an angry response from the international community. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been called on to appear before both

UK Parliament and the US Congress to further explain the situation and what steps Facebook will take to better protect its users’ information in the future.

While the facts are still murky at this point, it appears that Facebook sold data to Cambridge Analytica that it did not have the explicit consent of its users to sell. Even more worrying is the accusation that Cambridge Analytica used people’s personal information to help political clients tailor their campaign message to each individual.

If this is true, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica committed a serious breach of the free and open election practices that both the US and the UK pride themselves on.

Information is at the very heart of democracies. The first thing that any oppressive or authoritarian regime does to consolidate power is restrict the flow of information to the public. An uninformed or misinformed population is much easier to manipulate, which is what makes accurate and free journalism so vital to sustaining a democracy.

In an age where information is constantly twisted, people need to be smart about how much of their personal data they put online. According to Statista, Facebook had 2.2 billion monthly active users as of the fourth quarter of 2017. That means the social network has access to a massive amount of individual data for nearly 30 percent of the global population.

If that data were to fall into the hands of a political campaign, it is easy to see how it could be exploited for the benefit of that campaign.

Most people know that their online habits follow them everywhere. For example, if you shop for a pair of shoes, you’re likely to see an ad for that same pair of shoes on a different website later on.

What we often don’t know is how our personal data gets used and shared. That needs to change with increased transparency and accountability measures for sites like Facebook. Users have a right to know exactly where the information they put on their online profiles will end up.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica may face serious legal repercussions if the allegations against them turn out to be true. But these types of dilemmas in the digital era are still relatively new, and this could turn out to be a groundbreaking debate over the rights of users of social media platforms.

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

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