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Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What just happened?

Many Facebook users understand that their data is being used — but the Cambridge Analytica scandal underscores just how far it can travel.

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A drawing of a pile of the Facebook thumbs-up icons. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Public trust in Facebook has taken several beatings in the past 18 months, and the social networking giant was done no favors by the recent revelation that a political data firm called Cambridge Analytica had smuggled millions of users’ data out of the site, exploiting a loophole in Facebook’s platform.

On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kurt Wagner explained how that happened and what might happen next, along with The Verge’s Lauren Goode and Recode’s Kara Swisher. The podcast was recorded on Wednesday night, very shortly after Wagner and Swisher finished interviewing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg,

“A lot of people do know what Facebook does with your data,” Wagner said. “What caught people off guard here is that, one, some 50 million users found their data in the hands of someone that they did not give permission to have it. Two, we find out that Facebook knew about this three years ago and never said anything publicly. I think there’s this betrayal of trust right now.”

Part of the problem is that, back in the days when Facebook was a scrappy startup fighting its way to the top, privacy was not a moneymaker — but plugging users’ data into a plethora of outsiders’ apps was. That’s also why, Wagner explained, it’s wrong to call the Cambridge Analytica affair a “breach,” because at no point was the data obtained through hacking or other illegal tactics.

“When you’re a venture-backed business that’s trying to rapidly scale and add as many new users as possible, if you’re the profile — if I’m downloading 10 new apps a month and I’m using my Facebook identity to log into all 10 of those — I’m probably not leaving Facebook,” he said. “There’s a huge value to them in doing that.”

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On the new podcast, Swisher and Wagner noted that they were both pleased by Zuckerberg’s willingness to answer all the questions they asked directly — you can read the full transcript of their interview here. But one of the lingering questions was, why did it take so long for Zuckerberg to surface at all?

Wagner said it may tie back to the CEO’s widely publicized claim, after the 2016 election, that it was “crazy” that “fake news” on Facebook might have influenced the outcome.

“Do you know how many times people pointed to that interview and said, ‘Hey, remember that time Mark Zuckerberg said it was crazy and now look?’” Wagner said. “He looked super naive. In this scenario, I think they remembered that interview and said, ‘Before we get all the facts, the last thing we want is to put Mark out there in front of the press to say something that we’re going to backtrack later on.’ That is my hunch.”

Swisher took issue with Zuckerberg’s reluctance to be the arbiter of content on the platform — that’s a requirement of the job, she said.

“They have to take responsibility. That’s what adults do. This is their company, they’ve made billions of dollars off of it, they decimated industries — they really control the online advertising market,” Swisher said. “They need to be responsible and make choices.”

“Making choices means you piss people off, making choices means you have to give up some things,” she added. “They can’t have everything. They can’t have the world’s biggest platform and not be responsible for it. If they don’t want to do it, then get out of the way.”

Have questions about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica or anything else that you want us to address in a future episode? Tweet them to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed, or email them to

Be sure to follow @LaurenGoode, @KaraSwisher and @Recode to be alerted when we’re looking for questions about a specific topic.

If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara and Lauren. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!

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