In one of the weirder moments of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony on Wednesday, the Facebook CEO suggested there might be some really shady stuff going down at one of the oldest and most well respected universities in the world.
“There’s a whole program associated with Cambridge University where a number of researchers — not just Aleksandr Kogan, although to our current knowledge he’s the only one who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica — there are a number of the researchers who are building similar apps,” Zuckerberg said. “We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.”
The organization that Zuckerberg is referring to is the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Center. According to the center’s website, it is a “Strategic Research Network at the University of Cambridge dedicated to research, teaching and product development in both pure and applied psychological assessment.” That is, it conducts psychological research by assessing social media and online activity.
The center’s researchers also apparently know how to really get down during the holidays:
Cambridge University isn’t having any of Zuckerberg’s sass. In an emailed statement to Mashable, it said:
We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridge looking at what an individual’s Facebook data says about them. Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media. These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) and co-authored by two Facebook employees.
At this juncture, it makes sense that Zuckerberg would want to distance himself and his company from a research organization devoted to using data to understand individual psychology. Zuckerberg faced hard questioning in Congress particularly around the extent of data that Facebook collects on its users, both within and outside of the the social network’s apps.
But Facebook’s utilization (and manipulation) of its users’ data for psychological research is already well-established — including with Cambridge University specifically.
“We can confirm that researchers at the Psychometrics Centre had several discussions with Facebook ahead of and around the time of the publication of their 2013 paper,” Cambridge said. “Facebook also responded in detail to press queries of the study at the time.”
Cambridge is also not taking the pillorying of researcher Aleksandr Kogan at face value. Kogan is accused of selling data he collected from his “thisismydigitallife” quiz app to Cambridge Analytica.
“We wrote to Facebook on 21 March to ask it to provide evidence to support its allegations about Dr Kogan,” Cambridge said. “We have yet to receive a response.”
Your move, Zuck.