Security Social Media

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

Simon Batt Updated 21-04-2020

Facebook went from reuniting with your school friends to influencing elections. But how can someone use your data on Facebook to change how you’ll vote in the next election?


Let’s take a look at how Facebook fits within the political sphere.

How Can Facebook Influence Elections?

First of all, let’s explore why influencers have their sights set on Facebook. After all, it’s chock-full of memes and cat videos; what would anyone want with those?

While Facebook has its share of digital chaff, it does have one thing in spades; personal information. This kind of data is essential for political influencers, as it allows them to refine their campaign.

To win an election, a political party has to appeal to the masses. Ideally, it should tackle the issues that young people face while also covering the older demographic. The public has fears, concerns, and expectations for their country; if a political party accurately identifies these, they can use them as leverage for the election.

Facebook is a great way to analyze these different demographics. From hobbies to career choices to thoughts on political topics, someone can glean a lot of information from Facebook that they can use to influence voters to their side.


How Is Facebook Data Gathered?

To collect all this Facebook data, a researcher could trawl across the website and scan every profile for information. However, why would they search when they can encourage users to hand it over instead?

Analysts use a personality test that measures five elements: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism. They can use these five traits to profile people and figure out what they want most psychologically.

Analysts can get this data from looking at profiles, photos, likes, and posts. As we mentioned above, however, they can also allow users to hand over their data to them freely.

If there’s one thing social media users love, it’s a good personality quiz. People can answer a few personal questions and learn which element they are, or which Harry Potter character fits them best. Quiz-takers can share their results with friends, who then take the test themselves to see what they get.


As you might have guessed, an analyst can create a personality test that asks people about the big five psychological traits. The quiz may ask for the user to share personal information so the researchers can match the quiz results to the person.

Once the user finishes the quiz, they finally learn which Frozen character they are, while the analyst has enough data to create a psychological profile of them.

How Do Campaigners Use Profile Data?

Now that the analysts have created a profile for the citizens of a country, they can hand the data over to political campaigners. So, how do campaigners use this data to influence how you vote?

The answer is with advertising. The campaigners have a psychological map about you, including what you hold dear and what you’re afraid of. They can use these points as leverage by using targeted advertising that shows you information related to your profile.


For example, if your psychological profile says you’re afraid of crime, you’ll see ads that claim a political party is cracking down on criminals. If you hold your family dear to you, you’ll see ads telling you how a certain president is looking out for your spouse and children.

This completes the roadmap on how Facebook data can influence voters. Users upload personal data, share photos, and take fun personality quizzes that builds a psychological profile about them. The analyst passes this data to a political campaigner who uses it to sculpt a targeted advert run on said users.

How Facebook Influenced the 2016 US Election

To see this roadmap in effect, let’s go back to the 2016 US election. Despite people claiming he’d never make it, Donald Trump won the election to become president. As such, people began looking into how Trump managed to pull ahead when it came to election day.

How Cambridge Analytica Helped the Republican Party

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was a likely influencer in Trump’s campaign. This company specialized in creating user psychological profiles to target advertisements better. The Republican Party brought on CA to help influence people to vote for Trump.


Before Trump brought them on, Cambridge Analytica had a motherlode of data on American citizens. One of their most successful data sources was a quiz called “This Is Your Digital Life,” which asked users questions about their personality and life.

320,000 people would go on to take this quiz, as reported by The Straits Times. However, back in 2015, Facebook’s data privacy wasn’t as strict as it is now. As a result, the quiz could gather information about every quiz taker’s friends and contacts without their permission. This resulted in the creation of 50 million profiles from one quiz.

Prior to the election, Cambridge Analytica only used these profiles for marketing purposes. After they were brought on-board to the Republican party, CA began using the data to guide campaign efforts so they targeted the correct person.

To this day, there’s a lot of debate over the effect CA had on the election. Some claim that CA’s influence single-handedly won Trump the vote, while others state that CA was just part of a more substantial reason.

Either way, the CA scandal got so large that Facebook addressed the Cambridge Analytica scandal Facebook Addresses the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Facebook has been embroiled in what has come to be known as the Cambridge Analytica scandal. After staying silent for a few days, Mark Zuckerberg has now addressed the issues raised. Read More themselves. Eventually, CA would close its doors in May 2018.

How Effective Was the Targeted Ad Campaign?

While this tactic is quite chilling, here is no substantial evidence that CA’s effort greatly influenced the vote. There’s no single document or statistic that someone can point to that proves the targeted ads changed voter’s minds.

What is known, however, is that CA did use Facebook data to fuel a political campaign. Regardless of if it was successful or not, the truth still stands that it happened. As such, people who are worried about this kind of data collection should take steps to protect their data online.

How to Prevent Voter Profiling on Facebook

So, regardless of how powerful this voter-profiling is, how do you prevent it from happening to you?

First of all, if you have privacy concerns and you still use Facebook, you’re unfortunately shooting yourself in the foot. Facebook is a goldmine for companies who want to harvest and use your data against you.

The best way to stop companies from harvesting your Facebook profile is never to create it; the second-best way is to delete it as soon as you can.

Personality tests are fun to do, but be careful if you notice the quiz gets a little personal. If a “Which superhero are you?” questionnaire begins asking you for an email address, name, date of birth, or any other personal information, they’re not asking to decide if you’re Spider-man or Thor.

Don’t hand over your data willingly to these tests, no matter how many of your friends are posting their results. Your information is worth more than the results of a novelty personality test!

Monitoring Who Has Your Facebook Data

Facebook is a goldmine for personal information, and with it comes the businesses who want to harvest this data. This includes political parties, who use the psychological profile constructed by your data to target advertisements at you.

If you want to see where else your Facebook data went, be sure to read how to check if your Facebook data was sold off How to Check If Your Facebook Data Was Sold Off You can now check to see if your data was accessed during the Cambridge Analytica scandal without having to wait for Facebook to post the information on your news feed... Read More .

Related topics: 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 !!