Need to Know: Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the Never-Ending Reach of Big Data
A firm hired by Trump’s presidential campaign used Facebook data from 50 million American users to try and influence voters, and did so without breaking any of the social network’s rules.
Published on March 22, 2018

Photo via iStock/ bigtunaonline

Here at MERRY JANE we’re convinced that the world revolves around cannabis. From politics to culture, civil rights to economics, you can find keef dusted across every facet of modern life. But in these increasingly divided times, where natural disasters go damn-near ignored for two months and Twitter fingers have almost literally become trigger fingers, it's become increasingly important to highlight the most pressing news outside of the cannabis space. In a recurring round-up, MERRY JANE will break down the stories making waves in media, politics, technology, and culture — keeping you up to date on what’s making our world tick. Here's what you Need to Know.

"Are you on Facebook?"

These days, that question is rarely offered as an invitation, but rather as a test of the social media monolith's staying power and evolving reputation. We’ve all signed up, but have you stuck around?

Over the past week, for many Americans and Facebook users around the world, that question has been met with a new answer. On Twitter, the world’s second largest social media website, #DeleteFacebook was trending across the country last week, with countless tech experts hopping on the bandwagon to publish their own rebukes of Mark Zuckerberg and the ubiquitous social network.

After at least two years of persistent criticism for promoting fake stories on news feeds and relying on secretive algorithms to determine what posts are displayed where, a recently corroborated report about Cambridge Analytica —a data analytics firm that used personal information from 50 million unsuspecting American Facebook users to try and influence support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — has caused one of the most vocal mass uproars against the social media giant since its inception in 2004.

But as Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie, the company’s data analyst-turned-whistleblower, have turned into household names, the true effect of those techniques on the 2016 presidential election are still largely unknown. While Zuckerberg has since apologized for Facebook’s role in the fiasco, a business model based on shared personal info and constantly changing user agreements has left the social network’s data mining practices just as obscure as they were before the most recent headlines.

To break down the entire situation, we’ve compiled a series of deep dives into Cambridge Analytica’s “psychometric profiling” techniques, how the company was able to legally access so much Facebook data, and what’s yet to come in society’s relationship with Big Data. This is what you need to know about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus for Das Magazin and Motherboard

To understand why your uncle, butcher, and fourth grade teacher are all posting on Facebook about deleting Facebook, we’ve got to go all the way back to the turn of the aughts, when Michal Kosinski, a Polish grad student studying at Cambridge University in England, stumbled upon the social network’s treasure trove of user information, released with Facebook’s permission.

Focusing his research on a psychological classification method called psychometrics, which uses five personality traits to assess human personality traits — openness, consciousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN, for short) — Kosinski and colleague David Stillwell created a Facebook survey app with yes or no questionnaire scenarios like “I panic easily” or “I contradict others” that, once combined, could be used to form an individual’s psychometric profile.

Before long, the duo was comparing those psychometric profiles created from their social media surveys to Facebook users’ “likes,” amassing a set of statistically-backed correlations and wide-reaching predictions, all from information provided by Facebook freely as long as it was being used for academic purposes. For example, Kosinski and Stillwell’s data collection found that users who “like” the Wu-Tang Clan almost always identified as heterosexual, while a “like” on Lady Gaga’s official page tended to indicate an extrovert. Similarly, researchers quickly discovered that those same patterns could be used to target specific politicians or potential voters.

With so much information garnered from such little data collection effort, it quickly became clear to the larger data analytics community that Facebook would be the future of targeted advertising, political messaging, and general research. And by the time Donald Trump was announced as America’s 45th president in late 2016, Kosinski and others were beginning to question whether the new-millennium data mining technique, since adopted by a UK-based firm backed by a Republican billionaire, could have been used to sway U.S. voters and influence Trump’s unexpected victory.

Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore, and Carole Cadwalladr for the New York Times

That stand-out data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, was mentioned throughout Grassegger and Krogerus’ late 2016 report on psychometrics and Trump’s victory, but it wasn’t until last week, when former Cambridge Analytica analyst Christopher Wylie decided to come clean, that much of Das Magazin and Motherboard’s was confirmed with company documents.

In addition to describing Cambridge Analytica as “the arsenal of weapons to fight [a] culture war” and confirming the company’s continued stockpile of data from over 50 million Facebook profiles ― collected through Facebook privacy terms that allowed app developers to mine unwitting users’ profiles as well as those of friends — Wylie confirmed Cambridge Analytica’s connection to foreign nationals, an issue that has drawn the attention of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

A Russian-American data analyst and contractor named Aleksandr Kogan, a former researcher at Cambridge University, replicated Kosinski's psychometric methodology for Cambridge Analytica, using individuals’ Facebook statistics and OCEAN-based comparisons to segment voting populations and target them with highly specific advertising messages. Under the management of British-born Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, executive Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon), Kogan and the funding of conservative billionaire Robert Mercer, the company was hired to influence voters’ opinions on Brexit, Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign, and eventually, Donald Trump.

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai for Motherboard

But while employing foreign nationals in strategic roles on political campaigns violates U.S. election law, the involvement of Nix and others in the Trump campaign will not likely result in the end of Mueller’s investigation or 45 being dragged out of the Oval Office. In fact, despite the perceived overreach of Cambridge Analytica’s data collection and implementation methods, the company did not break any American privacy laws, and, at least stateside, is only guilty of exploiting Facebook’s hoard of user-volunteered data. Further, Facebook’s initial request that Cambridge Analytica destroy their treasure chest of social data after their methodology was made public, reports claim that the company did not comply, and faced no further criticism from Facebook itself.

As outlined in Franceschi-Bicchierai’s recent piece for Motherboard, Facebook has been a data mining site for as long as it has been a social network, keeping diligent tabs on every friend request, “like,” and share long before Kogan discovered Kosinski’s psychometric profiling shortcut.

But, as you may have noticed when an ad for the new Jordan 3s popped up on your news feed just minutes after Googling Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show, the U.S. does not have institutional protections for personal information written into federal law (unlike the U.K. and a handful of other countries), allowing Facebook, other tech companies, and data brokers to sell user info to the highest bidder.

And the same goes for grocery store rewards cards, Spotify streams, and countless other keystrokes and card swipes — the world’s increasing reliance on smart technology has turned nearly every social interaction into another statistical point for Big Data’s constantly churning algorithms.

So even as America’s left-wing pundits continue to wonder aloud if Cambridge Analytica was responsible for “stealing” the election for Trump, more nuanced critiques have looked past any one candidate and instead questioned the tech industry itself, taking a closer look at how entities like Facebook use social interactions for influence and profit, and how we as unquestioning citizens have been complicit in that process by giving up so much of our personal information.

Since the breadth of Cambridge Analytica’s data sets has been made public, the company has come under investigation from British authorities for misusing private data for means of profit, but because no such laws exist in the U.S., and politicians on both sides of the aisle have used technologically mined data in political campaigns for years, words like ‘leak’ and ‘breach’ do not accurately describe how the Cambridge Analytica collected its data. Instead, questions, anger, and ideas for fixing this problem have been directed at lawmakers who could potentially corral sales of data and most notably, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook itself.

Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein for WIRED

Beyond the understandably scary idea that a shady multinational analytics firm had used your late night Facebook stalking and meme “liking” to sell you on Donald Trump or encourage you to stay home instead of voting Hillary, the real-world effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s psychometric techniques have already been called into question by some of the political world’s most noted commentators.

The New York TimesKen Vogel and Los Angeles Times’ Evan Halper have both expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s targeted approach, questioning the value of psychometrics to political canvassers.

But if Cambridge Analytica didn’t break any Facebook or U.S. government rules, and is (at least in the eyes of some) an ineffective tool for political pandering, then why have Christopher Wylie’s revelations been front page news for a week?

At the heart of the issue sits Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, who has spent the last two years trying to correct the social network’s sinking reputation. Beyond the social media giant’s decade-plus of data collection, the site has come under increased scrutiny from both employees and users for using unspecified algorithms to disseminate fake news stories as if they were properly vetted. In the run-up and aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook was time and again chided for its refusal to regulate its content and structure, either from within or by outside entities.

Now, with the Cambridge Analytica fiasco focusing even more scrutiny on Facebook, Zuckerberg has changed his tune and is opening up to interviews, offering apologies and a newfound call for transparency and social media regulation.

Zuckerberg told reporters this week that the #DeleteFacebook trending topic had not actually caused a mass evacuation from the service, but the Cambridge Analytica revelations have turned Big Data into a household term, and has already influenced even tech novices to look closer at their digital footprint, reconsider their status as pawns for advertisers, and call on both CEOs and lawmakers to step in. Zuckerberg’s willingness to even publicly consider outside regulation of Facebook is in itself a concession that the most recent controversy has struck a chord.

In the end, it can be understandably appealing to blame companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for swinging the election in Donald Trump’s favor, but that would be selling short the larger societal shifts that have seen our friendships and acquaintances turned into nothing more than trading cards for capitalist profiteers.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
Share this article with your friends!
By using our site you agree to our use of cookies to deliver a better experience.