What the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica panic lacks in relevance it sure makes up for in melodramatic rhetoric. Bloomberg, for instance, says that “revelations of the apparent skulduggery that helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election keep sending shock waves across the political landscape.” It’s true. Everyone is talking about it. The story has consumed most of the mainstream media.
The theory goes something like this: Facebook obtained information on users who took a personality quiz with their online friends. Another outlet, Cambridge Analytica, harvested that information to brainwash a bunch of rubes, and then yada, yada, yada … Russia! Senators are now demanding executives come forth and answer questions. Investigations must be open. Democracy is under threat.
Former Cambridge Analytica contractor and now-professional whistleblower Christopher Wylie told CNN that while at the company he helped build a “psychological warfare weapon” to “exploit mental vulnerabilities that our algorithms showed that [Facebook users] had.”
So, in other words, he worked in the advertising business.
Those who have covered politics for more than a single Trump-cycle should know better than to use this kind of unnerving rhetoric for what amounts to average microtargeting, which has been used by hundreds, if not thousands, of firms. Yet, now, when it serves to bolster convoluted theories about an election being overthrown, terms like “psychographics” and “breach” are being thrown around to make it sound like someone hacked into voting rolls after boring into the deepest recesses of our souls.
Moreover, the idea that Facebook can know your “mental vulnerabilities” is only true if you share your nightmares with them. If you’re uncomfortable with data mining and your information being shared, don’t take surveys. Because, breaking news: You don’t have to be on Facebook. You don’t have to use Twitter. You don’t have a constitutional right to play FarmVille without answering some questions. You don’t get free stuff. The very existence of these tech companies is predicated on mining data so that they, or third parties, can sell you things.
Cambridge Analytica, a shady company owned by the British firm called SCL Group — and, reportedly, in part by the right-wing funding Mercer family — claimed it could build models that identify persuadable voters by using six key personality types. Considering the amount of data Hillary Clinton had at her disposable, the idea that more data equals more persuasion is suspect. Aside from that, Cambridge Analytica’s effectiveness is questionable, as are its business practices. As others have pointed out, most Republicans used the firm to open to door to the Mercers’ checkbook..
“Let’s start with fb data, use it to predict personalities, then use that to predict political views, and then use that to figure out messages and messengers and just the right time of a campaign to make a lasting persuasive impact” …sounds like a failed PhD prospectus to me
— Eitan Hersh (@eitanhersh) March 19, 2018
Yet, on the most obvious level, Cambridge Analytica is another story about double standards. The only consistent position the Left seems to take these days is that the mechanisms they use to keep power automatically transform into something nefarious and un-democratic when the opposition use them.
By constantly using the word “breach,” for instance, reporters are trying to insinuate that someone stole voter data that typically is off limits. Cambridge Analytica was allowed to pull that profile data. Facebook only changed its policy in early 2015. But then Trump campaign dropped Cambridge Analytica before the general election for the RNC data, reportedly never using the any of the “psychographic” information. According to CBS News, in Sept. 2016, it had “tested the RNC data, and it proved to be vastly more accurate.”
Even if they hadn’t, however, their efforts would have been akin to those being heralded as revolutionary when it served the interests of Democrats. Facebook, in fact, allowed the Obama campaign to data harvest in the same way that is now generating headlines and handwringing. Do you remember any outrage and trepidation over privacy and manipulation of your thoughts in 2012? If anything, there should be outrage that a massive social media company allowed one party to do things that it forbade another.
Most of all, so what if voters were being “targeted?” Part of living in a free society means being bombarded by messages we don’t like. The entire Facebook/Russiabot scare is predicated on the notion that people don’t have free will. It’s only once we start micromanaging the information Americans consume that we begin undermining choices. Of course people shouldn’t get their news from Facebook. And a reliable Fourth Estate which reports without bias to help Americans navigate through this messy contemporary digital life would be helpful. But the Cambridge Analytica story is just another example of how it fails.