Monday, March 26, 2018

Why Are We Only Now Talking about Facebook and Elections? - Article and Commentary

U.S. President Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Source: Forbes

Published: March 19, 2018

By: Kalev Leetaru

As I wrote earlier today, the story of Cambridge Analytica that the press, public and elected officials seem to have fixated on is that of a rogue company run amok with breached data that manipulated unwitting Americans into electing the candidate of the company’s choice (the company denies all of the allegations). A key thread of the narrative over the last three days has centered on the alleged impact of the company’s data analysis on the 2016 presidential election with the undertone that if true, the company’s actions somehow represent something new and unsettling in using data to advance a political campaign. To add a bit of perspective to this debate, it is worth looking back at two key ways in which the Obama campaign pioneered the modern data-driven campaign that is at the center of the Cambridge Analytica debate.

At the time of his election and reelection, Obama’s data analytics researchers were heralded as technology heroes for the way they modernized how political campaigns wrangle data in the pursuit of votes. Outlets sang their praises as “digital masterminds” and lauded their “unorthodox” approaches.

One highly publicized innovation was the construction of precision television viewership models that allowed the Obama campaign to precisely model private viewership habits of Americans: “The team bought detailed data on TV viewing by millions of cable subscribers, showing which channels they were watching, sometimes on a second-by-second basis. The information — which is collected from set-top cable boxes and sold by a company called Rentrak — doesn’t show who was watching, but the campaign used a third-party company to match viewing data to its own internal list of voters and poll responses.”

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In short, the campaign was able to heavily optimize its advertising efforts by quite literally reaching into the privacy of Americans’ living rooms and understanding what they were watching second by second. While the data didn’t offer address-level resolution, as the Post description above notes, it was sufficient for the campaign to generate exquisitely high-resolution advertising models that achieved up to 20% greater efficiency.

Yet, perhaps of greatest relevance to the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica is how the Obama campaign leveraged Facebook. As Carol Davidsen, former Director of Integration of Media Analytics for Obama for America put it last night in a series of tweets reflecting back on the 2012 campaign: “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing. They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.” Yet, she caveated the campaign’s use of the data noting that the project “felt creepy” but that they “played by the rules.”

A New York Times Magazine profile of the time offers a bit more detail how the Obama campaign’s platform worked and it is strikingly similar to the system Facebook claims was used by Cambridge Analytica. As the Times describes it, the campaign “started with a list that grew to a million people who had signed into the campaign Web site through Facebook. When people opted to do so, they were met with a prompt asking to grant the campaign permission to scan their Facebook friends lists, their photos and other personal information. In another prompt, the campaign asked for access to the users’ Facebook news feeds” which 75% permitted and “once permission was granted, the campaign had access to millions of names and faces they could match against their lists of persuadable voters, potential donors, unregistered voters and so on.”

According to one staffer who was involved with the project, next “it would take us 5 to 10 seconds to get a friends list and match it against the voter list … [next] we would grab the top 50 you were most active with and then crawl their wall … we asked to see photos but really we were looking for who were tagged in photos with you, which was a really great way to dredge up old college friends — and ex-girlfriends.”

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As the Times put it, the massive exporting of private user data triggered repeated alarms at Facebook due to the volume of profile data going out the door, but that “in each case the company was satisfied the campaign was not violating its privacy and data standards.” In all, through its data efforts, the campaign ended up with a database of 15 million persuadable voters.

In short, according to the Times’ reporting, which is borne out by many other reports of the time, the Obama campaign engaged in nearly identical activity to what Cambridge Analytica is claimed to have done: they took a set of users who willingly contributed their data to a cause and quietly mined their friend lists, downloading immense volumes of private material from unwitting individuals that never authorized, let alone had any idea, that a political campaign was harvesting their information from Facebook simply because a person they were connected with had given the organization permission to harvest their information.

In Obama’s case, the original contributors at least explicitly knew they were contributing to a campaign effort, even if their millions of unwitting friends had no idea their private information was being harvested to attempt to sway their voting behavior. In Cambridge Analytica’s case, users knew only that they were contributing to an academic research project, but the line between academia and the corporate world is ever more blurred in the data world and it is routine for academic institutions to engage in corporate-supported research using data owned by the institution in the support of commercial agendas. Indeed, the claims that Facebook data was collected for academic research and then made available to a commercial enterprise are hardly unsurprising for anyone familiar with the processes and procedures at most top US research universities, especially their corporate funded research and their licensing and commercialization programs.

Putting this all together, both Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign are claimed to have harvested information about millions of users from Facebook by starting with an initial seed list of users who granted permission to harvest their friends lists, which were then used to mass export available information on many millions of unwitting users who had never authorized their data to be accessed nor were they even aware of its export. The Obama campaign even appears to have mined wall photographs to identify who each user was tagged with to understand who were close friends and who were merely casual acquaintances, looking for “old college friends and ex-girlfriends.”
The only difference appears to be that in the case Cambridge Analytica case, Facebook claims that the data was gathered for academic research and then made available for campaigning, while in the Obama case the campaign was in charge of data collection from the start. Given the academic tradition, at least in the US, of corporate-funded research, it is likely Cambridge Analytica could easily have simply funded the necessary research directed at a university to ensure all usage was still considered to be academic in nature and avoided the whole controversy, to begin with. After all, in the case of the myPersonality project all users are required to register as “collaborators” and at least one Facebook data scientist is listed, suggesting the company has not historically been adverse to the sharing of bulk extracted datasets for research (though myPersonality appears to exclusively contain user submitted data, rather than bulk friend harvesting).

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I find it particularly interesting to see that Facebook offered no comment as to why Cambridge Analytica was not allowed to harvest data as they pleased, but the Obama campaign was basically given free reign. This bias seems to suggest a sort of favoritism and even subservience by Mark Zuckerber's company to the DNC.

If such subservience does exist, this would explain the seemingly  blind agreement which Facebook executives showed in their agreement and promotion of the supposition of fake news. When Obama made this strange speech using the fake news meme to (allegedly) target certain narratives of information which were disadvantageous to the DNC, Zuckerberg seemed to show no resistance and immediately offered to use his social media platform to remove certain subjects of discussion from users' posts.

This blatant act of what appeared to be blind favoritism showed Facebook users some of the first signs that the platform was not merely intended for innocent social interaction. Instead, this platform was revealed to be a political tool of thought control.

It appears to be true that to some extent, the Trump campaign somehow used this data from Cambridge Analytica as well. However, according to NYTimes, Trump intended to use such ties to entrap various politicians who were viewed as having criminal intent.

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The NYTimes article seemed particularly cryptic about the details of Trump's ties to the firm, and appeared to focus more on hypothetical scenarios instead of delivering any hard facts about ethical violations on the part of President Trump. Even still, if the Trump campaign did use this firm to take advantage of user data, these actions should be held to account as well.

(It was also interesting to see that the NYTimes article made no mention of the intimate ties between the Obama campaign, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica.)

As stated numerous times over, we live in the age of change and revelation. The outdated standards of the establishment are no longer in line with the will of the people. Moreover, the ways of elitist tyrants are no longer tolerable in the eyes of the general public. We are learning to see these inhumane and violent standards of such individuals more and more. And as we do, we are all the more able to choose a better course for our society as a whole.

We cannot say for certain what will come of the once-favored platform of Facebook. However, we can say that those who value free speech, privacy, and general respect for humanity may be searching for more preferable alternatives.
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