Personal Data Mining & Political Double Standards

This past week was a rough one for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Over the course of just several days, Facebook’s stock dropped nearly $60 billion and the company’s top brass faced intense international scrutiny from lawmakers and shareholders.

It has been nearly impossible to turn on any mainstream news channel and not see a discussion of what many are calling Facebook-gate.

What exactly did Facebook do wrong?

Everything You Need To Know

On March 17, The New York Times released a report detailing how a data and media consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, allegedly amassed data in a way that violated the privacy of millions of Facebook users and the policies of Facebook itself. During this time, the firm maintained connections with major Republican donors as well as the Trump campaign.

In addition to possibly violating laws “limiting the involvement of foreign nationals in American elections,” the data utilized by Cambridge Analytica was reportedly mined from over 50 million Facebook profiles with “only about 270,000 users” having consented to their data being collected.

How was this information obtained?

Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, developed a “personality quiz app,” and the 270,000 Facebook “users who agreed to give their information to Kogan’s app also gave up permission to harvest data on all their Facebook friends as well.”

Facebook originally permitted Kogan to collect this immense amount of data from their website, as he “told Facebook he was collecting it strictly for academic purposes.”

Facebook itself recently published the following in a clarifying news post: “Aleksandr Kogan requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”

The breach of Facebook’s policies came when Cambridge Analytica reportedly purchased the data from Kogan.

According to further reports, Cambridge Analytica used Kogan’s data, mixed it with polls and voter records, and created voter “personality models.”

The models were utilized by Senator Cruz’s campaign during America’s most recent presidential election, and they were also later allegedly used to “help shape Mr. Trump’s strategy” during his campaign against Hilary Clinton.

NPR has written that Cambridge Analytica staffers focused on “increasing online fundraising, reaching out to undecided voters, and boosting Election Day turnout” for the Trump campaign.

However, Kogan contends that “the personality profiles he had assembled wouldn’t be particularly useful for targeted advertising — or in this case, campaigning.” This view has been bolstered by other reports which have claimed that “before the general election, the Trump campaign dropped Cambridge Analytica for the Republican National Committee data, reportedly never using any of the ‘psychographic’ information.”

Facebook suspended Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from its platform, and Mark Zuckerberg has recently expressed regret over the entire incident and promised that reforms to his social media site have and will ensue.

It is important to note that, despite claims to its destruction, the data obtained by Cambridge Analytica may still be maintained by those involved in its collection.

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating “whether the use of personal data from 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica violated a consent decree the tech company signed with the agency in 2011.”

Double Standards?

While it is certainly easy to get caught up in the weeds of this story and cry foul play on behalf of the Republicans in our last election cycle, I would caution those who find themselves drawing such a conclusion.

The idea that these “personality models” landed Trump in the White House is dubious at best, and, even if they did, Trump would not be the first American president to have benefited from such a strategy.

The data mining technique that many in the media are currently referring to as an act of  “leaking” private data, a “breach” of trust, and a major “controversy” was merely described as “targeted sharing” in 2012 when President Obama’s campaign engaged in similar campaign practices.

What exactly did Obama’s “targeted sharing” strategy look like in 2012?

The future two term president’s re-election team developed a campaign website/app that requested its supporters to use their Facebook accounts to gain access to the app’s content.

Reportedly, for Obama’s supporters, “the app appeared to be just another way to digitally connect to the campaign… [but] the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists.”

The Guardian, which has referred to the recent Cambridge Analytica story as a “scandal” requiring people to take back “control” of their data, wrote the following neutral summary of the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook information in 2012:

Consciously or otherwise, the individual volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page — home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends — directly into the central Obama database. (emphasis added)

Carol Davidsen, who worked as the media director at an organization called Obama for America during the 2012 election, has recently stated that Facebook was well aware of the campaign’s “exhaustive use” of their users’ data, but, as she states, the social media company “didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.”

According to a New York Times article at the time, another Obama campaign member from 2012 also stated that “[Facebook would only] sigh and say, ‘You can do this as long as you stop doing it on Nov. 7.’”

One tech writer summarized the depths of the Obama campaign’s data mining in 2012 as providing it with so much information that it “didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”

For those of you who are fond of clicking on the links throughout my posts, you’ll notice that the same major news outlets that heaped praise and normalcy upon the data mining in 2012 have expressed themselves in a near polar opposite manner with respect to the revelations involving Cambridge Analytica’s actions in 2016.

To be clear, my intention is not to make a claim on weather or not this type of digital politicking is healthy for our country.

There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of that debate, and, regardless of where one aligns their views on that matter, it certainly seems prescient of Time to have published six years ago that “by 2016, this sort of campaign-driven sharing over social networks is almost certain to be the norm.”

However, what is unequivocally destabilizing for our democracy is the partisan double standard within the media that celebrates the data mining of one party’s campaign and bemoans the use of such a technique when it is used by the other side.



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