Anybody who has been paying attention knows that political campaigns have used people’s private data, harvested from Facebook, for a long time now. As businesses do to consumers, campaigns employ sophisticated ‘psychological profiling’ techniques to sway gullible parts of the electorate.
The more interesting – though less Hollywood – accusation about Cambridge Analytica is that, far from being masters of the new data universe, they are British ‘snake oil salesman’ who essentially repackaged and flogged well-established techniques to a desperate Trump campaign, as Paul Wood reported so brilliantly for The Spectator here.
The chief reveal in the Observer’s latest is confirmation of what’s been known for almost two years, which is that Cambridge Analytica may have breached the terms of Facebook’s agreement. …
The true horror, of course, is not that sinister right-wing forces can use information people share on social media to, as Wiley puts it, ‘mindfuck’ electorates. It’s that Facebook has all this powerful information in the first place. And what’s odd is that people don’t seem to mind data being plundered if the beneficiaries are the perceived good guys.
Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, for instance, used one of Facebook’s APIs (application programming interfaces) and data to target voters. It’s clever and complicated, but what it boils down to is that Obama’s data scientists were able to persuade about a million Facebook users to connect their profile to the Obama campaign website. They were then able to access the profiles of these people, which also showed who their friends were. From this they were able to construct real life social networks, which enabled them to target many, many more potential Obama voters. …
Facebook shut down that particular API function in 2014, apparently for privacy reasons – although sceptics point out that they realised outside companies could use Facebook’s API to replicate the ‘social graph’ that Facebook makes all its advertising money from.