How Your Data on Facebook Is Collected and Used to Win Elections

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In 2014, a survey app designed by Aleksandr Kogan collected data on 50 million Facebook profiles. Less than 300,000 of them had consented to this collection.

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In 2015, he gave that data to Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company. They used 30 million of those profiles to construct psychographic profiles of voters.

In 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to work on the campaign.

And now, in 2018, everyone’s angry about it. Mostly they’re angry at Cambridge Analytica. Phrases like “illegal harvesting of data” and “grossly unethical experiment Facebook's Fascinating (and Disturbing) History of Secret Experiments Facebook's Fascinating (and Disturbing) History of Secret Experiments Facebook has a tremendous amount of power, but doesn't always use that power for good. These experiments pushed the boundaries of ethics. Read More ” abound. But Kogan, Facebook, and the Trump campaign are taking fire too.

This is a story about data privacy, and changing attitudes toward it. But who’s the bad guy here? What are people really angry about? What can be done? And, in the end, are we focusing on the wrong thing? To find out, we need to start back in 2012.

2012: Privacy Concerns? No Big Deal

Big data and social media didn’t arrive on the political scene in 2012. But the scale on which they were deployed was groundbreaking. Data—especially data from social media—played a huge role in Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Facebook has provided tools for political campaigns for years. But the Obama campaign went beyond that. Canvassers, organizers, and other Obama supporters “consciously or otherwise” handed over public information from their Facebook profile.

Combined with all of the other ways an organization can buy people’s data, the campaign was able to put together comprehensive profiles of voters. Those profiles were used in ad targeting.

Here’s Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, talking about the importance of big data in the election (don’t miss the part where he talks about running 62,000 election simulations every day):

This type of targeting was easier to do online than on TV, according to Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel:

“[H]e said [addressable advertising] was unlikely to happen in any great quantity in 2012 as there are too many hurdles, including concerns in Washington about the privacy of cable TV consumers.

No such impediment will hold back the digital explosion this year.”

In 2012, concerns about privacy were viewed as an impediment to advertising—but only on TV.

To be fair, some privacy experts did warn citizens about the centralized databases used by the campaign. But in general, the press coverage of the campaign’s efforts to use big data, including a huge amount of Facebook data, were positive. There were some dissenting voices, but not as many as you’d expect in today’s post-Snowden world.

In 2012, we saw just how valuable social data is to political campaigns. We should have known someone like Cambridge Analytica would be coming.

How Does Facebook Data Influence Elections?

The connection between Facebook data and elections isn’t intuitively clear. What good does knowing if someone likes the movie Frozen do for a political campaign?

One of the most important pieces of information that campaigns get is the identity of influencers. Algorithms see which individuals are influential among their social groups, and those people are targeted for advertising. Sway the influencer, the thought goes, and they’ll sway their friends.

Much of the data collected also serves to target political ads. Facebook data can be sliced by geographic region, age, gender, interests, likelihood to vote for a specific candidate, and more. Campaigns can use information gathered on specific demographics to better target their ads.

Here’s how microtargeting works in political advertising:

Highly targeted ads can follow individual users around the internet, transmitting specific messages that campaigns believe are likely to swing them to their side. By using information collected from Facebook and third parties, campaigns can target users with alarmingly specific messages.

And these types of campaigns have been very successful. (Though not without cost. Chuck Todd makes an interesting argument that big data broke American politics.) With the amount of money changing hands in the political industry, there’s no question that this type of analysis would be highly sought-after.

2018: The Outcry Over Facebook Data Harvesting

Early in 2018, Cambridge Analytica hit the news in a big way. It’s a voter-profiling company that was hired by the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

To make a long story short, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data on millions of users that hadn’t consented to collection or analysis:

Note: Interestingly, the Guardian first brought allegations of suspicious data collection to light back in 2015.

Who Is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a voter-profiling company that’s owned by Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), a group that claims to have “conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries” (emphasis mine). They’ve also reportedly boasted of having influenced elections around the world.

“The information environment has become the new modern battlefield where state and non-state actors employ sophisticated propaganda and disinformation,” reads SCL’s list of services for the defense industry.

This is an organization steeped in the tactics of information warfare. And their clients include governments around the world, and even NATO. (To be fair, not all of their projects are sinister-sounding; they’ve worked on youth engagement, telephone network viability, and food security, as well.)

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company exists to take strong action, through data and messaging, to influence the minds of huge swaths of people. While this isn’t Cambridge, there’s no doubt that the mindset exists in both groups.

Which explains some of the rather disturbing ideas they share in this Channel 4 sting (including using Ukrainian girls to seduce Sri Lankan politicians):

Kogan, Cambridge, and Data Collection

Both Cambridge and Facebook have made a lot of claims. Cambridge knew that they were getting illegally harvested data (or didn’t), Cambridge said they didn’t have any data from Facebook (then said they did), Facebook downplayed the scope of the breach (then didn’t)… it’s a lot to keep up with.

The story here is that Cambridge Analytica used data obtained by Aleksandr Kogan, who had harvested information from 50 million profiles.

Dr. Kogan got that information through a personality test app and a loophole in Facebook’s data-collection rules. It’s important to note, however, that Kogan likely did not violate any rules. Facebook says that Kogan told them the app was for academic purposes, and that selling the data to Cambridge Analytica is a violation of policy.

Kogan has responded by saying that while the app was initially for academic purposes, he later changed the app’s terms and conditions. Facebook says he should have informed the company directly when he did that.

It’s a big, confusing mess.

Who’s at Fault Here?

It’s easy to point fingers in this situation. Kogan sold data he shouldn’t have. Cambridge Analytica bought data they shouldn’t have. Facebook should have been watching for this type of thing. The Trump campaign contracted with a company that has a history of shady practices. And yes, all of those people are at fault. But is a party missing from these recriminations?

Look at it this way.

The data that we generate on social media is an extremely valuable resource Facebook Makes Money Out of Your Data, Why Shouldn’t You? Facebook Makes Money Out of Your Data, Why Shouldn’t You? There are so many free services online because companies can profit from the data you provide. Companies like Facebook sell (or buy) your data to third parties, while ones like Google use your data to... Read More . It’s worth billions of dollars. Like oil or gold, people will go to extremes to get it. They’ll buy and sell it. Steal it. Maybe even go to war over it.

But unlike oil or gold, we have control over this particular resource.

Our ambivalence is the root cause of this controversy. We don’t want to face that truth, but we have to consider it.

Yes, Cambridge Analytica used illegally obtained Facebook data. But let’s be honest: they probably didn’t have to. People give away the permissions to their Facebook accounts every day. Remember the people giving the Obama campaign permission to access their Facebook data “consciously or otherwise” back in 2012? That hasn’t changed.

Whether it’s through online quizzes, Facebook apps, web tracking through Like buttons Facebook Is Tracking You! Here's How to Stop It Facebook Is Tracking You! Here's How to Stop It Many entities are tracking your internet activity, including social media sites like Facebook. Here's what you need to know. Read More , or just using Facebook to sign into a website, we’re giving away our data all the time. Cambridge Analytica just got it a little faster than they would have otherwise.

It’s been well established that Facebook could be a powerful force, for good or evil, in global politics. Cambridge Analytica had 50 million accounts, but that’s nothing compared to the data that some groups, including Facebook itself, have access to. SCL is not the only group out there offering services like this. Our information is not only valuable—it’s powerful, and it’s dangerous in the wrong hands.

Facebook itself has advertised its power in elections. With over 2 billion users, it has more power than Cambridge Analytica or SCL will ever have. But we’ve remained willfully ignorant of the problem this represents.

There’s possibly no other industry that can benefit more from your data than politics. As long as our Facebook data is valuable—and it’s hard to see that abating—companies like SCL and Cambridge Analytica are going to do whatever they can to get it.

Will we continue to make it easy for them? And will we let them do whatever they want with it?

Assigning blame in this case isn’t easy. The entire system has been headed toward an event like this. It was only a matter of time.

The Future of Data and Elections

The difference between the reactions in 2012 and 2016 is worth thinking about. Was it Snowden’s revelations that taught us to be wary of data collection? The huge data breaches that we’ve seen over the past few years? Or is it because this data collection was done on behalf of Republicans, instead of Democrats?

But when our data starts finding its way into the hands of political campaigns, and when it starts being used to influence the course of national (or even international) politics, many people find that to be a different matter.

Regardless of why we’re talking about it now, it’s something we need to keep talking about. We know that Facebook sells our data What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? Read More . And when they’re selling to advertisers, we generally stay silent.

Explore more about: Big Data, Data Harvesting, Facebook, Online Privacy.

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    July 20, 2018 at 5:29 am


  2. Ari Shrum
    March 24, 2018 at 1:46 am

    I quit Salesforce because they had the balls to run commercials bragging how they had helped get Obummer the teleprompter elected. And we know all about what is in the article written above. Obummer the teleprompter-idiot in many ways succeeded in the "Dream[s] of His Father" in making America SUCK, to become equal to the sh*tholes of the world.

    Well, now, the Trump admin 4 years later with better tech, and a MUCH smarter guy has almost single-handedly reversed most of the damage done in the last 8 years - in ONE YEAR. You won't hear that too much on the lame stream media. So, tit for tat. And hold on to your hat for 3-7 more years! Haha.

    "Make America Great" (or exceptional, as it has been for most of its history) either really makes the snowflakes and every other "abberant" SINFUL liberal (Sofa King We Tall Did) group really mad, and the historical Americans really glad.

    Liberalism is a mental illness, I'm sure you've heard. The classical definition of mental illness: not seeing reality as it really is. I work with some, and have overcome my own, so I should know.

    I doubt this will get posted. Know why? Journalists are mostly liberal (see above) and apparently could not major in English, as it is quite obvious in EVERY article by EVERY author due to the spelling and grammatical mistakes (usually uncorrected) in EVERY article I read. I (speed) read because occasionally I get a sliver of useful information, which more often than not turns out to be in error (as pointed out by the much smarter commenters). I doubt the world would miss you if you (and How-To-Geek) were to disappear tomorrow. Especially now that a large number of articles are just re-hashed from years ago (2014 for example).

    But, I guess there's a sucker born every minute. Thank God less than half turned out in this election cycle. Who gives a crap if they read your rag.

    By the way, while I'm on a soapbox, Jesus Christ claimed to be God. You have two choices - either he was a crucified lunatic, or He Was WHO HE said He Was, and laid His life down for those who the Father gave Him. Choose wisely.

    • Scott
      March 28, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      When someone uses a name like "Obummer" for their "argument," it is clear that they don't think their facts are sufficient to make their case.

      Lots of people have claimed to be god. Statistically, it is far more likely that all of them are wrong. Choose (nothing) wisely.

      • Ari Shrum
        March 29, 2018 at 4:11 pm

        Obummer is a play on a name, it is not an argument.

        You are correct, lots of people have claimed to be Jesus (God); these are called in the bible, anti-christs, and they have been around for 2000 years. Statistics have NOTHING to do with it - they are ALL wrong.

        Jesus said "I AM the way, the truth, and the life; no person comes to the Father BUT BY ME". You only have the two choices mentioned.

        No harm, no foul, thanks for your response! And have a nice weekend!

  3. dragonmouth
    March 22, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    "In 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to work on the campaign."
    And that is the crux of the problem. It's not about Facebook. It's not about Cambridge Analytica. It's not even about data harvesting per se. It's about Trump getting elected or rather about Hillary NOT getting elected. There was no hue and cry about "illegal data harvesting" in 2012 when the Obama campaign used voter profiling to help get him elected. Had Hillary gotten elected, FB/Cambridge Analytica shenanigans would have never been mentioned. Neither would have "Russian meddling" been mentioned. However, since a usurper snatched Hillary's throne right from under her butt, anything and everything is being done to find some way to impeach Trump.

    "But unlike oil or gold, we have control over this particular resource."
    Horse feathers! We only think we have control. As long as our data is worth $Billions, we have no say in who harvests it. You seem to have forgotten the Golden Rule "He who has the gold, males the rules". Since we, the users, don't have the gold, we have to play by FB, Google, etc rules and that means harvesting any data they want.

    "Our ambivalence is the root cause of this controversy."
    That is a glib statement. I an as tight with my information as the proverbial clam's ass. I do not have a FB account. Never did. Nevertheless FB has a data file on me. How and how come? There are millions of people who never used a computer pr a smartphone, who never went online. And yet FB, Google and hundreds of other entities have extensive data files on these people. How and why?

    It is very easy to point a finger at FB and other social sites and to advise people not to reveal so much much about themselves. It is very easy to advise people to use the privacy settings provided by those sites. Unfortunately, that advice is futile. FB, Google, et al use myriad of other sources to harvest data about us. For example, where does Equifax get all the data it needs to rate our financial health? Certainly not directly from us.

    BTW - with all this advice about privacy, why does MUO not allow the use of masked emails? To make it easier to harvest user data?

    • Mitesh
      March 28, 2018 at 11:37 am

      Well said !!