There’s some disturbing news about our digital existence emerging. A company called Cambridge Analytica used data from Facebook to build psychographics to influence political perceptions and voting behavior. The profiles of 50 million users of the ubiquitous social media platform were harvested through a contract with a UK-based research firm (Global Science Research, GSR).
Investigations by the Intercept, the Guardian/Observer, the New York Times, and undercover footage from the British Channel 4 network reveal a company whose use and abuse of data–along with more conventional covert activities–crossed the line between consumer persuasion to political manipulation.
According to CNN, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie says the company tested Trump slogans such as “drain the swamp” and “deep state” as early as 2014, before Trump announced a presidential run.
And obviously, some of the messaging based on those tests struck a chord. A Monmouth poll released this week reveals 74% of Americans believe in the existence of a “Deep State”–“a group of unelected gov & military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy.”
In its sales pitches in the run-up to the 2016 elections, the company boasted it had “5,000 data points on every American” and claiming it had created “extensive personality profiles” to be used for “psychographic targeting.”
The details about how the Trump campaign used these services have yet to fully emerge, but we do know the campaign engaged in ad campaigns aimed at black and young women, along with college students aimed at discouraging their participation in the voting process.
We also know there are striking similarities between the Trump campaign’s efforts and those of the Russian-based Internet Research Agency in amplifying these message. Special Counsel Robert Mueller may someday give us some answers in this area.
Michelle Goldburg at the New York Times explains what we do know at this point.
After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.
Created in 2013, Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of the SCL Group, a British company that specialized in disinformation campaigns in the developing world. It’s mostly owned by the Mercer family, billionaire right-wing donors and strong Trump supporters. Before becoming the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Steve Bannon was Cambridge Analytica’s vice president. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., also served as an adviser to the company.
Cambridge Analytica shared office space with Trump’s San Antonio-based digital operation, and took substantial credit for its success. “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” Nix said in a Nov. 9, 2016, news release.
It’s also worth noting that James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, which attacks liberal politicians and organizations with edited sting operations, was funded by the Mercers.
The Guardian expanded on the basic storyline about abuse of personal data this morning, interviewing Sandy Parakilas, the platform operations manager at Facebook responsible for policing data breaches by third-party software developers between 2011 and 2012.
The former employee said hundreds of millions of Facebook users likely had their private information harvested by companies exploiting the same loophole as the firm that collected data and passed it on to Cambridge Analytica.
During the time he was at Facebook, Parakilas said the company was keen to encourage more developers to build apps for its platform and “one of the main ways to get developers interested in building apps was through offering them access to this data”. Shortly after arriving at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters he was told that any decision to ban an app required the personal approval of the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, although the policy was later relaxed to make it easier to deal with rogue developers.
Seemingly endless storylines involving intervention in other nations’ political processes continue to roll out in publications around the world.
From the Hindustan Times:
Executives from Cambridge Analytica (CA) spoke to undercover reporters from the channel about the methods used by the firm to help clients, which included hiring sex workers to seduce rival candidates and entrapping them in fake bribery stings.
The executives, who served as US President Donald Trump’s election consultants were also secretly filmed talking about using bribes, former spies from the UK and Israel, and fake IDs. They boasted CA and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories had worked in more than 200 elections around the world, including India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic and Argentina.
CA’s chief executive Alexander Nix said the firm secretly campaigns in elections around the world, including operations through a web of shadowy front companies or sub-contractors, Channel 4 reported.
In one exchange, when asked about digging up material on political opponents, Nix said the firm could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”, adding Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well”.
Facebook has now severed ties with Cambridge Analytica and says it’s conducting a forensic analysis of how its data was used.
They also banned the guy who was the whistleblower and threatened to sue various media outlets as they became aware the story was about to be released.
There will be investigations on top of investigations; State Attorney Generals, the Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the British Government all say they’re looking into it.
My bet is the final verdict will be nobody knows the impact of Cambridge Analytica’s research for its clients (including the National Rifle Association, by the way).
The science isn’t as exact as the salesmen pitching the product claim it is. It’s one thing to have Facebook Likes correctly predicting whether a man was gay or straight (88% percent of the time) or whether someone was a Democrat or a Republican (85% of the time) and another to predict what actions they may take when messages based on these presumptions are served up.
I have seen a flurry of “what aboutism” from the right conflating the microtargeting of messages used by the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, with what we’re learning about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Trump campaign.
For one thing, the Obama campaign used voluntary (and transparent) data collection through field surveys, along with publicly available demographic information.
Information used in the Trump campaign was collected involuntarily from the contacts of individuals who used entertainment apps. The “secret sauce” was collecting information to predict people’s personality and psychology — known as psychographics — and then using that information to try to influence behavior. And the way the information was used was to promote fear and distrust.
This story is a big deal beyond the scandalous details; it may well alter the digital landscape of the information economy in the 21st century. It won’t keep unscrupulous politicians and marketers from gaming the system. But it may change the way consumers view social media platforms.
As CNN Money points out:
All of this comes as Facebook is already getting questions about the long-term appeal of its platform, at least in the United States. The number of daily active users in the United States — a whopping 184 million — declined for the first time last quarter. Facebook also lost 2.8 million users under the age of 25 last year, and is set to lose another 2 million this year, according to eMarketer.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is likely to hasten user disenchantment with the network, sources inside Facebook acknowledged. Facebook is increasingly being seen as a platform vulnerable to manipulation by political groups, foreign governments, or worse.
Ultimately, however, the real culprit in the eyes of the American public may not be Cambridge Analytica or the Russians, but rather Facebook itself.
I’m not deleting my Facebook account at this point, although I would be open to switching to another platform promising to be more honest about the way they do business and remembering its users are more than a data farm.
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