(AUCKLAND, New Zealand) – There was no breach, only abuse, but just who the “bad actors” were will surprise you. It’s true that the Trump campaign used data provided by Cambridge Analytica to adjust their messaging and to identify electoral districts in battleground states that would be receptive to the campaign’s platform during the Republican primaries, and to a lesser degree some of the information may have been used later in the general election.
What did Cambridge Analytica actually do?
Information about users was harvested through the use of a personality survey application that integrated with Facebook’s user database, ostensibly to collect additional data about the survey takers for the study. What isn’t mentioned is that every single user opted to allow the surveyor to collect the data from their accounts, and that the data collection basically only happened once. One and done.
The Trump campaign has said that while the CA data was used, it was vastly inferior to the data kept by the Republican National Committee (RNC), and the RNC databases were used far more extensively during the general election than the data from CA. The data provided by CA was used during the primary election, when then candidate Trump was still punching it out with the other Republican candidates for the nomination. Because the CA data was a snapshot from up to a year or so before, the data was next to useless by the time the general election rolled around and Trump was matched up against Hillary Clinton, the then presumed victor of the electoral contest.
So, if there was no breach, what’s the problem? What is the abuse?
The abuse of Facebook’s user database was in the systematic use of Facebook user data and linked campaign and community organizer apps to directly coordinate the manipulation of users by showing them posts designed to trigger emotional responses at moments when they were calculated to be most receptive, and then encourage those users to in turn influence their friends. It was a subtle and pervasive use of Facebook’s platform to not only create a movement but also to educate and energize an entire demographic of U.S. voters and pre-voting teens into action. The campaign was the Obama re-election campaign in 2012, and it was constant between 2012 and 2015.
Using an app and ecosystem designed by over a hundred social scientists, software developers, experienced bloggers, statisticians, and data miners at offices in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, the Obama re-election campaign managed to deploy the app to over a million Facebook users. The end result is that the Obama campaign ended up with data of varying detail on anywhere between 190 million and 500 million Facebook users, and because their apps remained active through the campaign and afterward, their ability to test and tweak their social media strategies was a daily intrusion into the lives of hundreds of millions of people, disguised as the thoughts and opinions of friends and family. Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign digital director, said candidly, “People don’t trust campaigns… Who do they trust? Their friends.”
Imagine the audacity of the campaign’s ability to monitor in near real time the response to their messaging and adjust or alter their messaging to resonate with more users, earning them more shares and likes which in turn functions as a credibility score that influences the next level of friends in the social chain.
This egregious use of Facebook’s data to create a live and covert feedback loop into the Obama campaign was apparently permitted by Facebook for non-obvious reasons, except maybe that top Facebook officials were quite close with the Obama White House, and President Obama actually visited Facebook’s offices in person in 2011 around the same time that the campaign’s Facebook data mining project was allegedly conceived.
"Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn't stop us once they realized that was what we were doing." Carol Davidson, Former Obama Campaign Director
Has Facebook closed all of these loopholes?
For now, it seems as if they have. In 2015 they closed the mechanisms being used by President Obama’s political action organizations to monitor the social pulse of the nation and manipulate it, and last month they closed the loophole in their terms of service regarding third party use of Facebook data. But it seems, to an outsider, that both of these events were intended to restrict access to Facebook’s data by Republicans and Conservatives looking to repeat what Obama’s campaign had achieved. And while Cambridge Analytica played fast and loose with the terms of service, they stayed within bounds, if barely. Comparing CA’s access to the detailed data of a couple hundred thousand Facebook users against the Obama campaign’s four year, always on access to one million user accounts and their friends, there are several whole orders of difference in the usefulness of the two situations and data sets. CA’s and therefore Trump’s access was to a snapshot of data during a very short period of time, to a small number of users, before the primary election, while Obama’s organization had complete and total access to a live view of all one million users and their estimated 190 million friends and family members for about four years, starting at least one year before the general election in 2012.
There was definitely abuse of your privacy and of your Facebook data. Someone used Facebook to radicalize an entire generation of Americans, leading us to today’s divisive, tense, polarized environment, and it wasn’t Trump or the Russians. In fact, the Russians and every bad political actor out there are trying to figure out how to replicate Obama’s success without access to the same real-time tools that Facebook allowed Obama’s campaign to use. The unfortunate irony is that Facebook is still the social network of choice for billions of people, and there is a special sort of gravity that comes with that large of a user pool, which makes it difficult to conceive of a world without Facebook, even when it misbehaves and takes political sides. Social media and email users should be very concerned about their privacy and the use of their information. Google and Facebook had a combined number of hundreds of links with the Obama White House, with hundreds of in-person meetings and many key hirings. Following his exit from the White House, some of those key personnel have found themselves being placed at major social and entertainment companies. It doesn't take much imagination to figure that this is all part of the metaphorical swamp, and that we will be seeing many of those names again in the future.