Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about the current Facebook controversy involving GOP data firm Cambridge Analytica:
About Cambridge Analytica
Cambridge Analytica (CA) is the American arm of a British firm called SCL, which has done election work throughout the world. GOP Mega-donor Robert Mercer is a major investor in the company and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon also served as an advisor.
CA first started working on US elections in the 2014 cycle and they offered a voter targeting approach based on a psychometric concept known as the “The Big Five,” which assesses individuals based on five character traits. The traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (commonly known by the OCEAN acronym).
CA categorizes voters according to the OCEAN traits and recommends messages and advertising creatives to a campaign that are most persuasive to these voters.
There are mixed opinions about the efficacy of CA’s methods and products and during the course of the ongoing investigation of CA’s role in the 2016 US presidential election and the 2016 Brexit campaign, their now-suspended CEO has backtracked on several of his company’s earlier claims.
- The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About (Buzzfeed.com)
- Trump’s Data Firm Really Wants You To Know Claims About Its Mystical Powers Are Bullshit (Buzzfeed.com)
CA & Trump
CA joined the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016 after he secured the Republican nomination.
- Trump Campaign Turns to ‘Psychographic’ Data Firm Used by Cruz (NationalReview.com)
- A Lot of People Are Saying Trump’s New Data Team Is Shady (Wired.com)
Post 2016 Fallout
In light of evidence of Russian interference in both the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum, CA is under scrutiny by lawmakers and authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Russia Probe Now Investigating Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s ‘Psychographic’ Data Gurus (TheDailyBeast.com)
- Cambridge Analytica boss under fire from MPs (Channel4.com)
What’s Happening Now
Last week, the UK’s Guardian newspaper published a report based on interviews with Christopher Wylie, a former CA employee, who explained that the company accessed millions of Facebook profiles via an app intended for research purposes in 2014.
- The Cambridge Analytica Files: ‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower (TheGuardian.com)
On Friday night, Facebook announced that it had suspended SCL and CA from its platform
- Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook (Newsroom.fb.com)
As a result, the incident is being mistakenly called a data breach (an error which Facebook is quick to correct because of the legal implications), but in reality, this was just a typical use of the privacy settings around the platform’s social graph at the time.
Nevertheless, this new revelation has led lawmakers and regulators in both the US and UK to call for additional investigations into CA and Facebook.
What You Need to Know
- The method CA’s affiliates used to mine the Facebook social graph data was commonly used — at the recommendation of Facebook — until privacy settings were changed in 2014. In fact, the Obama 2012 campaign built an app that extracted far more data.
- Facebook argues this was a violation of their terms of service at the time because the users who opted in to the app did not know it would be used for political purposes.
- CA claims that it didn’t use any of the data harvested from Facebook during the Trump campaign and described the research partnership as “fruitless” to MPs.
- Facebook was aware of this incident involving CA and social graph data but waited years to take action.
- In Politico today, I argue that this incident should result in real consequences for Facebook, like greater regulation and a break up of the company.