From interviewing academics on a daily basis, I can tell you it’s not common for them to be in the middle of a multinational political scandal. So it’s not entirely surprising then that Alex Kogan, a psychology lecturer at Cambridge University who harvested the data that Cambridge Analytica allegedly used to target Facebook users with pro-Trump political ads, said he was “stunned,” to find himself embroiled in this story.
“The events of the past week have been a total shell shock,” Kogan said in an interview with BBC Radio Wednesday morning. “My view is that I’m being, basically, used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica when, honestly, we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately.”
Over the weekend, the news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had used the Facebook data of more than 50 million people collected by Kogan to micro-target users with campaign advertising. In the BBC interview, Kogan said he was under the impression that what he was doing was completely normal.
“What was communicated to me strongly was that thousands and maybe tens of thousands of apps were doing the exact same thing and that this was a pretty normal use case and a normal situation for usage of Facebook data,” Kogan said.
He said it was his first time working on a commercial project, and he agreed to do it because it was a way for him to get a large dataset with which to do his research.
“I was doing the project for free, I didn’t have money to go get a lawyer,” Kogan said, noting that the approximately $800,000 that Cambridge Analytica paid his company was used to pay for the $3 or $4 rewards that survey respondents got for participating. “My motivation was to get a data set that then I could do research on. I never profited from this in any way personally.”
After earning his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Kogan received his Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. He joined Cambridge’s psychology department in 2012, and focused on researching “human kindness and well-being.”
“My research is about happy things, positive things, compassion, kindness, and so to be on the antithesis of that is really, really difficult,” Kogan said in the radio interview. “I got really interested in trying to understand how we could model human behavior through social media because there’s residue of who we are in everything we do and here we had lots of little behaviors that we could use to try to understand a little bit more about who you are.”
He has co-authored published studies with titles such as “On wealth and the diversity of friendships: High social class people around the world have fewer international friends,” and “The Role of Positive Self-Evaluation on Cross-Cultural Differences in Well-Being.” Kogan said that the data he collected likely couldn’t have been very useful in a targeting political campaign, a claim which has been supported by media reports.
“In practice, my best guess is that we were 6 times more likely to get everything wrong about a person as we were to get everything right about a person,” Kogan said, adding that if his work had helped elect President Trump, he would feel “absolutely horrible.”
“Mr. Trump is not somebody whose values align well with mine,” he said.
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