The media frenzy and political umbrage over the apparent theft of upwards of 50 million Facebook user profiles in 2014 by Cambridge Analytica, a British-based voter targeting operation co-founded by Steve Bannon, to assist Trump’s 2016 campaign is overlooking a critical fact: Bannon’s data didn’t deliver.
Cambridge Analytica developed psychological profiles of millions of American voters, yet its data wasn’t used by the Trump campaign in the runup to Election Day, its top officials have said. Apparently, the profiles weren’t as current as Republican National Committee voter files, nor as effective as using Facebook’s platform for political advertising in 2016.
“When 60 Minutes asked Trump digital director Brad Parscale about Cambridge, though, he said that his team never actually used the data,” Colin Delany, an online media expert, noted Sunday for Epolitics.com. “Instead, they could target voters and potential donors more effectively using the information they gathered by actually running Facebook ads and measuring the results.”
The 2014 theft of the Facebook data—the subject of weekend exposes in the New York Times and abroad—also isn’t news.
That data breach, which raises all kinds of user privacy questions apart from the political arena, was first reported by the Guardian in late 2015. The Guardian then noted that Cambridge Analytica was using the pilfered data while backing Ted Cruz’s presidential bid.
“A little-known data company, now embedded within Cruz’s campaign and indirectly financed by his primary billionaire benefactor, paid researchers at Cambridge University to gather detailed psychological profiles about the US electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting US Facebook users built with an online survey,” the Guardian’s Harry Davies reported. The parent company boasted of its “massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States—for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles.”
Nonetheless, the weekend reports in the New York Times and a London newspaper, the Observer, have caused media and political firestorms. On Friday, Facebook announced it was suspending its relationship with Cambridge Analytica, prompting questions about why it hadn’t done so sooner if its user data had been stolen. Facebook also suspended the account of Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower in the newspaper stories, drawing condemnation for what “they have known privately for two years.”
Meanwhile, on the domestic political front, there were calls for more investigations and regulatory oversight. A Democratic senator demanded that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A House Intelligence Committee Democrat echoed that demand. In Massachusetts, the state attorney general, another Democrat, announced she was launching an investigation. An ex-Federal Trade Commission official speculated that the Facebook breach may have violated a 2011 federal court order protecting user privacy, exposing the social media company to multi-millions in fines.
In Europe, the political hyperbole was even more extreme, because Cambridge Analytica worked for the pro-Brexit campaign, which won a British national vote to leave the European Union and pre-dated Trump’s election as president in November 2016.
“One member of Parliament, Jo Stevens, said Facebook’s relationship with its users’ personal data ‘reminds me of an abusive relationship where there is coercive control going on,’” the Washington Post reported. “At another point in the [Parliament] hearing, fellow lawmaker Rebecca Pow questioned whether Facebook was a ‘massive surveillance operation.’”
Perhaps some of the outrage and umbrage comes from the growing realization that social media platforms aren’t just friendly places where like-minded people associate, but companies with an advertising business model based on surveillance, data collection and targeting audiences—whether selling consumer goods or political messages. Nonetheless, the current media and political frenzy is ignoring a critical point—that Trump’s campaign didn’t use Cambridge Analytica voter profiles because they weren’t as current or as effective as the RNC’s data and Facebook’s advertising platform.
In other words, Bannon’s creation is getting far too much attention and credit for being more powerful than it was. Moreover, if the public wants to understand how social media has become a powerful political messaging tool, people should pause and understand that Facebook’s profiling of users is not unique among online marketers.
Epolitic.com’s Delany explains why: “Count me as a +1 for the ‘massive surveillance operation’ critique [of Facebook]—though we agree to the spying every time we log in,” he wrote Sunday. “Remember: if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product! Actually, the fact that Facebook collects so much data on its users and (functionally) rents it to anyone advertising on the platform goes a long way toward puncturing the hype around Cambridge and its psychographic social mapping.”
What Cambridge Analytica did in 2014 to steal Facebook data was not that unique, although it apparently was on a larger scale. It was in line with what many businesses do to try to game the biggest platforms to increase their audience or sales, Delany noted, pulling back the curtain on so-called psychographic profiling.
“The company ran afoul of Facebook because it used a quiz app to gather data from users’ Facebook accounts—and those of their friends,” he said. “This kind of ‘scraping’ was apparently allowed back in 2014, though most vendors used it on a smaller scale than Cambridge seems to have done. Cambridge basically aimed to reconstruct the web of relationships and personal information embedded in Facebook so that it could manipulate the data without going through Facebook’s data interface—and Facebook’s rules on what they could access and share.”
Bannon apparently sold the concept of psychological profiling to the billionaire Mercer family, as an unprecedented way to provoke and push the American electorate to the far right, which resulted in the Mercers pouring millions into Cambridge Analytica. But as Delany explains, psychographic targeting isn’t new—and crucially, it is supplanted by newer information, users’ daily keystrokes that render it increasingly obsolete.
Delany explained that there’s nothing new about psychographic targeting. He continued:
“Vendors have been pitching it for years, usually basing their models on the same kinds of data that corporate brands both create and consume in bulk. Data experts I’ve talked with generally say that psychographic models can be useful in your first rounds of outreach, since they should give you at least an idea of whom to target.
“But at soon as you start to gather information about which people actually respond to a given message, the models have mostly done their jobs: you’ll quickly see the difference between who SHOULD click on something and who DOES click on it. What voters actually do matters more than what you think they MIGHT do: data derived directly from voters’ choices quickly supersedes models that try to predict their behavior. Think of polling vs. canvassing: polls help you estimate what people think, while canvassing lets them tell you.”
So the Trump campaign, under Parscale’s direction, found it was more effective to use the Republican National Committee’s voter files in combination with Facebook’s audience-targeting supercomputers. As Delany noted, “Parscale’s team famously automated Facebook best practices on a vast scale—on some days, they ran more than 100,000 different ad/ad targeting variations, collecting far more useful data than Cambridge could provide and building their lists at the same time. Who needs a model once people’s fingers tell you what they think?”
That final thought is essentially what Parscale told CBS’s 60 Minutes. On Sunday, CBS posted a report on its website fleshing out the details of that decision. Basically, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica as a fallback as it was unsure it would able to use the Republican National Committee data, which in turn, Trump’s campaign did use—and found, together with Facebook’s platform, that it was more effective.
Bannon’s hyped voter profiling was too good to be true. Like many aspects of Trump’s campaign that endure, it was hype, smoke and mirrors. But that hasn’t kept it from a starring role in a media and political firestorm that’s eclipsing the real issue: how social media has revolutionized political messaging.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).