THE TRUTH ABOUT CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA AND YOUR PRIVACY
Let me tell you a story…
In 2013, I built a really badass Facebook app for Ken Cuccinelli’s bid for Virginia Governor. At the time, it was a monument to my love of social media and just plain savvy as a political strategist. Never afraid to push the boundaries of technology, it proved to be an early and effective tool in weaponizing social media for the sake of politics.
Just a few months prior, the Obama campaign built a targeted sharing app that allowed a person to sign in using their Facebook account and then pull in all of their friends who they could then send a specific message based on the location of that friend. Time wrote, “More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind.”
That’s a big deal because when a person gave the app permission to access their Facebook data, they were also giving the app permission to access their friends’ data without their friends giving permission themselves. It was all part of Facebook’s Open Graph.
I took it all another step. This is from a memo I wrote in 2013:
“In 2012, Facebook’s targeted sharing application was a game-changer for the Obama campaign. No marketing technique proved to be more effective than peer-to-peer messaging. Obama staffers even went so far as to say that the application was their most innovative technological development. We can take their model to the next level by merging it with the RNC voter file, Cuccinelli field IDs, and microtargeting data.
The idea is simple: have supporters share messages with their friends that are specifically tailored to each individual friend, instead of broad, generic messaging. Each issue message should include a call-to-action coordinated with field staff activities.”
Let’s say that Erin is friends with George. Erin logged on to the app and it pulled in all the information about George that Facebook would give me. We matched George to the voter file and then to our microtargeting data, which told us which issues George cared about the most. In this case, George is a hardcore pro-lifer. Instead of Erin sending a generic message to George about Cuccinelli and jobs, Erin sent George a message about Ken Cuccinelli being a national leader in the pro-life movement. That’s what my app did.
We built the app and it worked beautifully. I can’t say that it was a game-changer, but on election night the race was much closer than anyone thought it would be. Cuccinelli lost, but I like to think our little app played a small part in picking up some votes we didn’t think we had. Technologically though, it was a big success.
I tell you that story because I’m getting questions about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook everywhere I turn. My answer has been, “it’s nothing we haven’t done.” The only difference is that we stopped accessing that data when Facebook plugged the data spigot. My app wouldn’t work today because Facebook changed the rules. We have a good relationship with Facebook and they know we’re a political agency and, as such, we’ll take every little bit of data they put in front of us.
Here’s a dirty little secret that you should know — all political operatives take data. Whether it’s old school excel spreadsheets or social data via APIs — if politicos can get their hands on data, they will take the data, keep the data, and probably even use the data on another campaign. Anyone who tells you different is absolutely lying and trying to ride some non-existent high horse. Politicos take data. Plain and simple. End of story. Pro-tip: if you’re running for office, make all politicos sign list confidentiality agreements.
So if Facebook turned off the spigot and I couldn’t build my app today, how did Cambridge Analytica pull it off?
It sounds like Facebook has different rules for political campaigns and academia. The man who accessed all the data, Aleksandr Kogan, was a researcher at Cambridge University. He told Facebook that he was accessing the data for academic purposes. He then built an app on top of the data for Cambridge Analytica.
So, who’s to blame here? Shit, man. I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:
- Facebook used to allow us to access the same data using their Open Graph API but then changed the rules and cut off the spigot.
- Facebook allows researchers to still access that data.
- A researcher lied and said he was using the data for academic reasons, took the data, and then used it for political purposes.
One more thing I know: Facebook is giving us a service for free and we, in turn, are telling it and every other social media platform everything about ourselves. We’re bitching about privacy while standing in front of a window butt ass naked. Do we really think that people aren’t going to snap pictures and video when they see us standing there? That’s the world we live in now. We’re doing it to ourselves and then blaming corporate America.
The dude who lied is to blame. Cambridge Analytica is to blame. Yes, Facebook is to blame because they should have more oversight in this kind of situation, but they did change their rules and stop the flow of data for political reasons. Can they really stop people from lying?
You and I are also to blame. We’ve given up our privacy. When we give it up, people will take it.