MOSCOW/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The psychologist at the centre of a scandal over the misuse of millions of Facebook users’ personal data worked with Russian researchers on a study of toxic personality traits.
Aleksandr Kogan advised a team at St Petersburg State University that was exploring whether psychopathy, narcissism and machiavellianism - dubbed the ‘dark triad’ by psychologists - were linked to abusive online behaviour, said Yanina Ledovaya, senior lecturer at the university’s department of psychology.
“We wanted to detect (internet) trolls in order to improve in some way the lives of people suffering from trolling,” Ledovaya told Reuters.
Kogan, a lecturer at Britain’s Cambridge University who also goes by the married name of Spectre, has come under fire for passing data culled via a Facebook personality quiz to political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
The test was taken by a few hundred thousand people but the app on which it ran also collected details about all of their Facebook ‘friends’ without their knowledge or consent.
That data was then used in a targeted digital ad campaign in support of Donald Trump’s successful run for the U.S. presidency, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix told an undercover reporter from Britain’s Channel Four news.
Nix was suspended on Tuesday in a spiralling scandal over how the data came into his company’s hands, in violation of Facebook’s own rules. The saga has wiped nearly $50 billion (£35.53 billion) off the social network’s market value.
Kogan did not respond to an emailed request to comment on his work in St Petersburg, but told the BBC on Wednesday he was being made a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The latter firm has no link to the university.
Ledovaya said Kogan had advised the St Petersburg team on the project - which was funded by a university grant - between 2015 and 2017, visiting rarely and mainly interacting from abroad.
The team built a Facebook app using a 61-question survey for Russian-speaking users that sought to determine to what degree they had the ‘dark triad’ traits.
The app collected answers, as well as the public data of respondents, after securing their consent. Separately, the researchers analysed the text of users’ public Facebook posts.
Ledovaya said the data gathered was not passed to anyone outside the five-member research team - nor was it shared with Kogan.
“We don’t have the right to share the data of these 10,000 or so people with anyone - it’s a matter of ethics and we are sticking to it,” she said.
Research into personality traits viewed as malevolent goes back at least to Sigmund Freud, the Viennese pioneer of psychiatry who identified narcissism - or excessive self-love.
Machiavellianism, named after the Italian diplomat and writer of the Renaissance era, represents manipulative behaviour, while psychopathy manifests a lack of empathy.
Ledovaya said one goal of the project was to ascertain the mental wellbeing of the respondents and, as appropriate, offer free counselling.
The emergence of Kogan’s St Petersburg connection comes as relations between Moscow and the West plumb new lows. Kogan, a U.S. citizen, was born in the former-Soviet republic of Moldova but moved to the United States as a child, Britain’s Guardian newspaper said.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies for criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper with the U.S. presidential campaign.
One line of inquiry being pursued by Mueller is the suspected use of targeted Facebook messages by Russian groups - including the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Bureau.
The St Petersburg State University research team has nothing to do with the Internet Research Bureau, said Ledovaya.
“I know the people involved in the research project very well - they are the last people I can imagine taking part somehow in such an activity,” said Vladimir Volkhonsky, who worked at the psychology faculty until 2011.
Cambridge University said Kogan had correctly sought the permission of the head of the psychology department to do the work with St Petersburg.
“It was understood that this work and any associated grants would be in a private capacity, separate to his work at the university,” it said in a statement.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; editing by John Stonestreet