The Problem Is Facebook, Not Cambridge Analytica

Authored by Leonid Bershidsky via Bloomberg.com,

Facebook is being hammered for allowing the data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire 50 million user profiles in the U.S., which it may or may not have used to help the Trump campaign.

But the outrage misses the target: There's nothing Cambridge Analytica could have done that Facebook itself doesn't offer political clients.

Here, in a nutshell, is the CA scandal. In 2014, Aleksandr Kogan, an academic of Russian origin at Cambridge University in the U.K., built a Facebook app that paid hundreds of thousands of users to take a psychological test. Apart from their test results, the users also shared the data of their Facebook friends with the app. Kogan sold the resulting database to CA, which Facebook considers a violation of its policies: The app was not allowed to use the data for commercial purposes. Carol Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, writing for the U.K. publication Observer, quoted former CA employee Christopher Wylie as saying the firm "broke Facebook" on behalf of Stephen Bannon, the ideologue and manager behind the Trump campaign.

It didn't escape keen observers that if the Trump campaign used Facebook user data harvested through an app, it did no more than Barack Obama's 2012 data-heavy re-election campaign. It's not documented exactly how Obama's team gathered oodles of data on potential supporters, but a deep dive into the tech side of that campaign by Sasha Issenberg mentioned how "'targeted sharing' protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade." To do this, the protocols would need to use the same feature of the Facebook platform for developers, discontinued in 2015, that allowed apps access to a user's friends' profiles -- with the user's consent, as Facebook invariably points out.

Let's face it: Users are routinely tricked to obtain such consent. Tech companies make giving it, or agreeing to complex terms of service, look like a low-engagement decision.

"Is it okay if we look at your friends' info?" they ask.

"Sure, why not? I want to take this nifty psychological test," we answer.

Afterward, only Facebook itself is interested in the legal minutiae of what permissions it gave to which developers. As far as everyone else is concerned, it doesn't matter whether an app gets the data for research purposes or for straight-up political ones. Average users worry more about convenience than privacy.

The relevant question, however, is what a campaign can actually do with the data. CA's supposedly sinister skill is that it can use the Facebook profile information to build psychological profiles that reveal a person's propensity to vote for a certain party or candidate. When matched against electoral registers, targeted appeals are possible.

But no one should take the psychological profile stuff at face value. No academic work exists to link personality traits, especially those gleaned from the sketchy and often false information on Facebook profiles, definitively to political choices. There is, however, research showing that values or even genetic factors trump traits. It's not even clear how traits affect political behavior, such as the tendency to vote and donate to campaigns: Some researchers, for example, have found a negative relationship between emotional stability and these measures; others have found a positive one.

This is not to say Facebook data, including data on a user's friends, can't be useful to campaigns. The Obama campaign actually asked its active supporters to contact six specific friends suggested by the algorithm. So 600,000 people reached 5 million others, and, according to data from the campaign, 20 percent of the 5 million actually did something -- like registering to vote.

But did the Trump campaign need CA and the data it acquired from Kogan to do this kind of outreach in 2016? Likely not. Facebook cut off the friends functionality for app developers because it wanted to control its own offering to clients interested in microtargeting. 

There's plenty of evidence that Brad Parscale, who ran the digital side of Trump's campaign, worked closely with Facebook. Using the platform's "Lookalike Audiences," he could find people who resemble known Trump supporters. Facebook also has the capacity to target ads to the friends of people who have "liked" a page -- a Trump campaign page, for example.

Targeting messages to millions of specific people without going directly through Facebook is messier and probably more expensive than using the social platform's own tools. All Facebook requires for access to its data trove is a reasonable fee. 

Whether CA could add anything meaningful to Facebook's effort is unclear. Its previous client, the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz, has said it didn't deliver on all its promises.

Some studies have shown that Facebook ads can work quite well for businesses. If they also worked for Trump, the CA story is a red herring: It's Facebook's own data collection and the tools it makes available to clients that should be the target of scrutiny and perhaps regulation, both from a privacy perspective and for the sake of political transparency.

Comments

Adolph.H. Tue, 03/20/2018 - 10:47 Permalink

The fix is obvious: never have any farcebook profile. 

Problem solved. 

Same goes with gmail, Amazon, etc. and other big corps who offer services with no strings attached, but with a lot of fine print...

But who am I to believe anyone would go down this path? 

toady Bes Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:10 Permalink

The problem is government hubris. They just go ahead and watch everyone all the time. Fuck privacy. We can't really blame these money grubbing fucks  (fangs) that sell out the general public. Get rich or die trying.

Or is it the rubes who freely sign up  (click to accept and continue) to be abused/marketed/sold out?

In reply to by Bes

bania SethPoor Tue, 03/20/2018 - 12:03 Permalink

Snippet of Zuckerberg IMs from his college days...

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend's Name]: What? How'd you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don't know why.
Zuck: They "trust me"
Zuck: Dumb fucks.

***

And who is surprised any of this is happening?

In reply to by SethPoor

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In reply to by Kayman

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In reply to by slopz38

nmewn iinthesky Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:07 Permalink

If people didn't WILLINGLY divulge truthful information there wouldn't be an issue. 

Of course on the other hand, I've never played the role of a snowflake and lied to an app for my own personal benefit or to gain trust & information.

That would be unethical & irresponsible to the machines owners ;-)

In reply to by iinthesky

Endgame Napoleon iinthesky Tue, 03/20/2018 - 12:53 Permalink

It is magical thinking to believe that FB or any app determines a single vote. Psychologists need to study why humans have a tendency to regard their own profession as the center of the universe. 

When I owned a tiny decor-and-art-related business, I was caught up in the maze of details that comprise that business. I was analyzing the product of another shop in minute detail, prompting someone who no doubt never bought that type of item in his life to say, “I had no idea this subject was so complex.”

It is way down the complexity ladder from rocket science, but when you are trying to turn out any type of excellent product, you think it is soooooo important. You likely overestimate its importance to the wider world.

Comparing my narrow niche market to the wild popularity of mobile computing, it would be so much easier for tech people to regard their field as omniscient—as all-powerful even over the mostly middle-aged, older and skeptical people who actually show up on non-trendy voting day to do the civic chore of voting.

Not that we fail to use mobile tech—we use it. Now that the technology is more accessible, middle-aged and older likely voters / likely candidates use mobile tech to its full limits. Look at Trump.

We use it more than some youths, but we have a lot of other influences controlling our votes due to decades of experience. I think the young people who bother to show up to vote do as well, although they may be more likely to cast an ideas-based or ideological vote than older people with more life experience. 

Whether they are older or younger, it takes a willing suspension of disbelief for people to vote for any of these aspiring or incumbent Swampers. Even though older likely voters, too, want to believe that the policy-pure BatMan will save the world by staying true to ideals—and even though the creativity of internet discourse pumps up that irrational part of the candidate’s appeal—we really know in the back of our minds that the elected Swamper will not save the world.

We older likely voters really vote out of civic habit or some sense of duty, drummed into us, not due to the urging of marketing Tweets from here or abroad. 

When I stood in two 2-hour lines to votes for Trump, it was just like all the other times I voted: a polling place overwhelmingly dominated by voters in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, with a sprinkling of people over 70 and even fewer in their 30s. There were a couple — one or two in the long, winding lines — in their 20s.

Were we likely voters influenced by social media? If you wrote pro-Trump posts, like me, it might have solidified a commitment to actually switch parties to vote for a Republican candidate after years of voting the other way. The act of commenting might have reinforced the [act] of switching parties.

But the reasons for my vote for Trump all predate mobile computing. If the iPhone had never been invented, I would have done the same thing. I considered switching parties to vote for Perot in my early twenties for the exact same reasons I voted for Trump.

I guess I have slowly been converting to the other side for a long time for reasons that have nothing to do with mobile computing and nothing to do with my vote for Trump, actually. These are work experiences, seeing how unfair all of the social programs that I used to idealize as a progressive really are on the ground level. 

The other thing about the internet that influences everyone  — not just the young — is its cleverness, its inventiveness relative to most TV news offerings. A Trump tweet, squeezed between the paragraphs of a good article, illustrates a point in a funny way that probably helped him with some voters more than others.

I thought his Tweeting was funny and entertaining, just like his TV improv: announcing his campaign via a mock  informercial, for instance. Funny. But that is not why I voted for him. Since the candidate’s Tweets would not motivate me to stand in a long line to cast a vote, why would some FB post by a marketer in another country work? Why would a targeted email based on some quantitative, psychological study work?

It would have 0.00 degree of impact on my vote.

 

In reply to by iinthesky

E5 iinthesky Tue, 03/20/2018 - 14:24 Permalink

If you have a facebook account you are going to hell.  pure and simple.  Only people who think the ark was loaded two by two have their mind wrapped up in the unclean.  Clean were loaded 7 by 7 male and female... that's right it is an odd number so.... wait for it.... 14 individual and 4 individual unclean.  If you didn't know that you are going to hell and there is nothing you can do because you don't have the first clue about God's message and the end is in hours.

In reply to by iinthesky

Canadian Dirtlump Adolph.H. Tue, 03/20/2018 - 10:55 Permalink

Absolutely Adolph ( boy did I expect to say that today? ).

 

I maintained a facbook profile for a month many years ago to confirm why I shouldn't have one. When a grade 6 crush of mine contacted me I shut it down.

 

Furthermore, no matter how unhealthy it is for real life relationships and your personal mental health, it is 1000 times worse in the sense of compromising your personal privacy.

In reply to by Adolph.H.

Joe Davola Kayman Tue, 03/20/2018 - 12:41 Permalink

At least with the Sears catalog, you could repurpose it if you forgot the Charmin.

Also, the prices/quantities/specs in the Sears catalog didn't mysteriously change during that one-click(TM) ordering process.

Chump:  hard to put a price on privacy, let alone determine its relative value and assign whether forgoing it at any cost is reasonable.

In reply to by Kayman

bh2 Adolph.H. Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:43 Permalink

Or if you have to use a Facebook "page" for business purposes, don't reveal any more correct data about yourself than necessary, and as little of that data as possible.

For example, the demographic search based on date of birth is pretty useless when you leave the default setting at some recent date which would suggest you are still in grammar school. :)

And fer crissake don't be a moron and give them an actual photo of your face.

In reply to by Adolph.H.

Michael Musashi Adolph.H. Tue, 03/20/2018 - 12:03 Permalink

The only reason this is a problem is because it involves the Trump election group. Make no mistake, this is the Soros Left attacking FB because FB was caught with both hands in the cookie jar... or like my 2-year-old puts it, "being fair."

 

 

 

 

In reply to by Adolph.H.

richsob Adolph.H. Tue, 03/20/2018 - 12:11 Permalink

How about just using your brain before you type in something?  When I'm on Amazon I am looking for "Garden Hose 50'" or "Sweat Shirt Size L".  I'm not plugging in "Madonna Cone Bra Men's Size".  How fuckin' hard is it to use some common sense?  Everyone know privacy went out the window years ago.

In reply to by Adolph.H.

Faeriedust Adolph.H. Wed, 03/21/2018 - 11:04 Permalink

If you don't put SOMETHING out there, then they know that you're a budding Ted Kazinsky just waiting to happen.  Normal people obey the marketing nudges.  Normal people have these accounts.  Normal people aren't dangerous to the Establishment.  You want to look Normal.

Of course, appearances can and should be deceiving.  After all, you aren't a Normal person.  Therefore if you want them to think you are, anything you tell them must be a Lie.

In reply to by Adolph.H.

pigpen boattrash Tue, 03/20/2018 - 10:49 Permalink

Boattrash, only citizens can shut down goobook digital monopolies. Every citizen needs to immediately download brave browser or similar adblocking browser.

Brave blocks advertising malware and tracking by DEFAULT on any device and operating system rendering digital advertising model useless.

It is simple that even grandma can use it.

Whoever controls the browser controls the money.

What is the value of advertising if an ad can't be sent, viewed or tracked?

Also if you are selling my data and I'm the product then why not give me a percentage of the revenue?

If you are going to censor, track and still my data without compensating me, then each day I will try to destroy your business model one person at a time.

We the citizens can take down the goobook by installing brave.

The FTC won't do anything

Cheers,

Pigpen

In reply to by boattrash

pigpen boattrash Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:09 Permalink

Boattrash, Firefox is great. CEO of brave developed JavaScript and was at Firefox. For average Joe who is technical Luddite, brave is easy to download and works by DEFAULT. No need to touch the settings. They place the user experience over all else. Firefox you have to download ublock origin or something similar. For ease of use, brave is so simple.

Cheers,

Pigpen

In reply to by boattrash

pigpen LawsofPhysics Tue, 03/20/2018 - 11:18 Permalink

Laws, Netscape was pre Google. Everything Google does starts with chrome. Brave blocks advertising malware and tracking by DEFAULT rendering digital advertising model useless on any device and operating system.

I use Google phone, what good am I to do an advertiser when I can't be served ads, ads can't be viewed and I can't be tracked around internet?

I use brave to watch YouTube, no ads. Let Google pick up storage costs. I am not going to let them monetize me if they won't share the profits from selling my data and tracking and censoring me.

Cheers,

Pigpen

In reply to by LawsofPhysics