The Cambridge Analytica story is a great spy thriller. It takes elements of psychological warfare, and even hints at brainwashing. The devious villain’s evil corporation had been working silently in the backstage of political theatre, and through its ingenious use of data collection, had Donald Trump elected, and the U.K. exit the EU.
It’s an even better example of the how stories get spun, and how most people don’t care about the details. Not that Cambridge Analytica didn’t do anything wrong, but it seems that their whole scheme, dubbed psychographic data collection, is closer to magic than secret campaign weapon.
Shortly after the New York Times and the Observer published this story, social media lit up with an anti-social media sentiment.
Elon Musk joined the #deletefacebook movement by removing Tesla’s and SpaceX’s pages from Facebook, according to Inc.com. Former Facebook executive and co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton also added to the conversation tweeting, “It is time. #deletefacebook.”
The scandal is that Facebook gave away 50 million people’s private data.
“This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry that this happened,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg eventually told CNN.
The Facebook data collected by Cambridge Analytica was used to create personality profiles based on the Goldberg five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Cambridge Analytica performed targeted analysis using the Facebook data to apparently shape its client’s campaign messages.
But most of what broke news had already been known for years, and no one cared. Any application that ran off Facebook between 2010 and 2015 essentially had access to the users’ profile — and also all their friends’ info. That’s how 50 million users’ data was accessed. It wasn’t that Cambridge Analytica cracked some secret code, they paid a University of Cambridge researcher who created a personality quiz for them. Though the specifics are disputed, what more or less transpired was the researcher had access to the 270,000 Facebook users who voluntarily downloaded the personality quiz — but since Facebook’s terms allowed the app to collect data from users’ friends, he ultimately obtained over 50 million profiles’ data.
That Facebook blunder had been reported on quite extensively. Facebook closed the loophole in 2015.
But, according to most of the experts who I’ve listened to for context on the issue, Cambridge Analytica’s system of psychographic data collection and advertising is about as effective as horoscopes are at predicting your future.
Antonio Garcia Martinez, contributor for WIRED, speaking to On The Media said, “One of the funniest things about the coverage of this story is those who know the least about ads are the most convinced of the supernatural powers of advertising and what Cambridge Analytica did. And those who know the most about ads are most skeptical about their claims.”
The story got interesting when Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Observer that the data obtained was used to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
However, speaking to BBC Radio 4, Aleksandr Kogan, the PhD researcher who developed the personality/data collection app, “The accuracy of this data has been extremely exaggerated. In practice, my best guess is that we were six times more likely to get everything wrong about a person as we were to get everything right about a person. I personally don’t think micro-targeting is an effective way to use such data sets.”
“It could have only hurt the campaign. What Cambridge Analytica has tried to sell is magic. And it made claims that this is incredibly accurate, and it tells you everything there is to tell about you, but I think the reality is that it’s not that. If you really work through the statistics, those claims quickly fall apart.”
Martinez more or less agreed. He noted in his article “The Noisy Fallacies of Psychographic Targeting” that these psychological profiles are more akin to astrology signs. “Facebook doesn’t actually give you the tools to target a psychological state of mind (not yet, anyway) — it only offers pieces of user data such as Likes.”
According to Martinez, for Cambridge Analytica’s methodology to work, it has to somehow guess an individual’s political leanings based on metaphysical properties like conscientiousness and neuroticism, as well as predict which user behaviours are common among people with the same psychological qualities.
“[A] straw poll among my friends in the industry reveal near-unanimous skepticism about the effectiveness of psychographic targeting,” Martinez wrote.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and director of their Center for Media and Citizenship, speaking on CBC’s Day 6 said Facebook doesn’t need help to sway voters’ views. Since 2015, when they took their ad consulting in-house, they’ve been the go-to crew for political campaigns.
Vaidhyanathan noted that Facebook actually embedded consultants with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns.
“The Trump campaign decided to actually listen to them, and put all of their money in Facebook ads, and use their ads to carefully target American voters based on very small discrepancies,” Vaidhyanathan says.
Considering this, its Facebook itself that has the ability to gather personal data and target users based on it. Vaidhyanathan described Facebook’s advertising tools as a monster that even Facebook can’t control He believes that the real problem is rooted in the core ethos of Facebook, the algorithms it uses, and the fact that it’s not accountable for disseminating false information.
“There is no disclosure for political ads on Facebook the way there is on television and radio,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Everything is dark, everything is below radar.”
But maybe the solution isn’t just to quit Facebook, as some claim.
In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Vaidhyanathan said, “[E]ven if tens of thousands of Americans quit Facebook tomorrow, the company would barely feel it. Facebook has more than 2.1 billion users worldwide.”
“[Q]uitting Facebook lets Google and Twitter off the hook. It lets AT&T and Comcast and its peers off the hook … We must demand that legislators and regulators get tougher. They should go after Facebook on antitrust grounds.”
There’s far more to this conversation than what could be summarized here and it’s all quite exhausting. But a small upside to it is now people are talking about these issues.
Facebook, if they’re going to display ads or news, should be held to the same standard any legitimate news provider is.
Last week, Laura Tribe spoke at the Student Union’s Advanced Leadership Program. She’s OpenMedia’s executive director. If you haven’t paid attention to their work, they’ve launched some incredible and influential campaigns related to internet neutrality and privacy in Canada. Check it out and maybe do something about the problem. Facebook and tech giants like it will continue to get away with choosing presidents and prime ministers if everyone stays quiet.
As Vaidhyanathan wrote, “If we act together as citizens to champion these changes, we have a chance to curb the problems that Facebook has amplified.”