Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I’ve been following the stories surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for some months now, and in recent days, following stories from The Observer, The New York Times and Channel 4, the story has really blown up.

However, I do think that the story, while completely valid, and asking some really critical questions, perhaps over emphasises some aspects at the expense of others. It’s true – I tend to see cock-up rather than conspiracy in most things. But here are some of my thoughts on the two key players in this instance.

On Cambridge Analytica

My underlying belief is that Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims it’s more powerful than it actually is, and uses the “digital voodoo” to win business in the murky world of political consulting.

If nothing else, tonight’s Channel 4 News exclusive shows that aside from stories about how powerfully the company is able to target voters using sophisticated social media targeting, more than anything they’re an ethically dubious political consulting group who will do just about anything to see that their paymasters win.

On Newsnight, their CEO Alexander Nix somewhat disingenuously claimed that he was being targeted by British media. That’s certainly not what came across in the Channel 4 video.

As they themselves will admit, it’s clear that Cambridge Analytica did indeed use Facebook targeting to try to micro-target individual voters during the last US presidential election, with advertising that pushed the right buttons with those voters. So if they thought that you might be swayed with promises about jobs, then that’s the hook that they would use to get you to vote Trump. But I also think it’s true that previous campaigns have done the same – notably Obama’s.

Of course we’ve not really had many elections in the time of social media to truly measure the impact, but while the data does allow a political party or its supporters to make potentially hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of copy that might tick the right boxes amongst voters, I think that it’s incredibly naive to believe that so many are willing to change their voting intentions on the basis of a few Facebook ads. It takes more than that.

That being said, this is clearly the narrative that Cambridge Analytica have painted for themselves. They worked for a campaign that wasn’t seen as likely to win the US election and yet it did. That means that they can go out and win lots more business all over the world with the suggestion that it was them “wot won it,” – as the Sun once claimed after the Conservatives won the 1992 UK General Election.

It’s a great gimmick. Nix has been able to go out and proclaim that his company has discovered the secret to winning elections. And campaigns of every hue have been queuing up at his doorstep.*

Beyond that, it does sound as though the company has been, if not bending the rules further than it should, taking and using data it really isn’t allowed to. After months of questionning, as the big stories came out over the weekend, Facebook finally pulled Cambridge Analytica’s access to use the platform and says that it will be conducting a forensic audit on how the data was being used. Meanwhile the UK’s Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to look at the company’s servers and databases.

I wouldn’t in any way excuse the company. If the claims made by both whistleblowers and others are proved to be true, then the book needs throwing at the company.

But I still need a lot of convincing that the company is as powerful as it would like to portray itself. Instead, I see a company who has decided to lead on it being an expert at data science in the world of political consulting to give it an edge over its rivals. And given the scale of social media networks and the way that users and the networks themselves use this data, we are more willing to believe that they are more powerful than they truly are.

On Facebook

I think Facebook has some real problems that are largely of their own making. This boils down to a few key areas, all of which they really only have themselves to blame for.

Privacy Settings

Facebook’s privacy settings have always been a nightmare for users. With a network as complicated as the one it has built, relatively few really understand what they’re sharing and who it is with. The settings change relatively frequently meaning it’s hard even for the most assiduous privacy minded user to keep up with who has access to what. What stories you like; who your photos are shared with; who your friends can further share things with and so on. It’s truly complicated.

Some people manage to lock their accounts down quite a lot, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Who can friend you? Who can share things with you? Who sees things that others have shared with you? Can you be found with your email or phone number and who can find you that way? Are you searchable via Google? When you like a company’s page, how much data is that company able to capture on you? What about when you enter a competition?

Lack of Control

Such is the breadth of the data that Facebook is able to capture, that one of the most troubling aspects of this story is the general lack of control the company seems to have. One part of this story concerns the use of a personality prediction “app” on Facebook called thisisyourdigitallife. The questionnaire was completed by 270,000 users but the data captured wasn’t just for those users, but for many of their friends as well. In total that gave data for over 50 million users. Facebook refers to these as “friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.” But just how many of those people who didn’t complete the survey remember, truly realised that this kind of data could be captured? While it may only be how that data was subsequently used that broke Facebook’s terms and conditions, it’s worrying that someone is able to capture that level of data regardless of whether they’re using in accordance with those rules.

And I suspect that a very small minority of users realised just what kind of catnip they’re giving to companies like Cambridge Analytica when they complete “fun” surveys such as this. For most users they’re just communicating in a fun environment with their friends.

Advertising

Facebook has built one of the most powerful digital platforms in the world; a platform that reaches billions and one which generates nearly all its revenue from advertising. That advertising is targeted using a massive database that it has generated based on user data that the company would say users have volunteered themselves. That in itself might be troubling considering that users largely don’t really consider how that data about themselves is used. But even worse is the idea that third parties can come in and use that data to target individuals without it even being revealed who is paying for those ads. We’ve seen that with ads paid for by Russian sources during the Clinton/Trump election campaign, and we’ve seen it in other campaigns. Channel 4 News highlighted last year’s Kenyan election for example.

It’s surely critical for any platform that runs advertising to be up front and honest about who is actually paying for that advertising.

Data

Facebook captures enormous amounts of data and it’s not simply when you use the Facebook website. You might be sharing your location with Facebook via its mobile app. Third party websites incorporate what is known as the Facebook Pixel. As with other advertising networks including Google, it means that Facebook knows where else you are outside of its own network. All those helpful sites that let you log in with your Facebook account? That’s more data you’re sharing with Facebook on top of the thousands of fields of information it is already keeping about you.

This can all make it seem to users that Facebook is actually doing nefarious things like using the microphone on your phone to listen in to your conversations. It’s almost certainly not, but as I said in a piece last year, if the company is so uncannily accurate, then the perception trumps the reality.

Summary

This is serious story – scandal even. And as much as anything, I’d like to think that this is a wake up call that gives people a greater understanding about how their data is being captured used, and potentially misused.

But I suspect that Cambridge Analytica is really just another political consulting company who’s USP is that they target voters with social media. They hit the big time by working for the Trump campaign, and being allied with Steve Bannon. Yet as a result, their marketing claims have become so hyperbolic that it has led to a widespread disdain for what they do, and since this story has begun to unravel, they’ve been rowing back how impactful this aspect of what they do actually is.

Instead, based on evidence from Channel 4 News, the company is perhaps more about the grubby world of sending prostitutes to the homes of political opponents and capturing it on video, or giving the appearance of having developers pay backhanders for property deals. This is all as low rent as you like.

Facebook’s problem is that it has too much data to the point that nobody seems to be able to keep on top of things. They have so much that some users suspect them of actually listening in to them via their phones. But they truly do follow you around the internet. The danger for Facebook, beyond what are likely to be short term falls in their stock value, is that users do start to rebel and close down their accounts.

I’ve always had a problem trusting Facebook. I don’t think they’re evil as such. But they have played too fast and too loose, and have ended up in a powerful position. As a by-product – alongside Google – they have just about completely cornered the digital advertising market which brings with it its own problems for society in general.

I’m not going to underestimate the problems with “fake news” and the ability of propaganda to spread like wildfire on social media platforms. There are some serious questions to be asked about how these platforms can and should be regulated, particularly in regard to elections where we have seen continuing problems.

On the other hand, just because I can be micro-targeted using all this data, it doesn’t necessarily win elections.

People who work in advertising always love to tell you about how their methods work – explaining that they built the biggest brand in the sector using their methods. That’s the same in politics too. Saatchi & Saatchi were widely credited with helping Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 General Election with their famous “Labour Isn’t Working” outdoor poster. The poster did indeed sum up very nicely the prevailing political landscape. But did it actually win the election, or was the country moving away from Labour anyway? It was a sizeable win for Tories. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a poster “wot won it” that time, and I’m pretty sure that a company led by an old Etonian with some Facebook data wasn’t actually responsible for Trump (or Brexit) either.

Further Reading:

A really decent piece from the New Statesman that seems to accurately summarise the full Facebook data part of the story.

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

A Verge piece that really gets into psychographics and microtargetting and what it can and cannot do.

Taken altogether, it seems like Facebook was taken in by a shady firm that misused data and lied about it. When Facebook found out, it did nothing. And making matters worse, we can’t even point at Cambridge Analytica’s deception as the reason Trump was elected: a closer look at its methods suggests they might not even work.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing says that he doesn’t think Cambridge Analytica is actually able to do what they say they can.

So, as I’ve written before, we should take Cambridge Analytica’s claims to Svengali-like mind-control with a boulder of salt, because until Sunday, they made these claims to drum up business (now they’re busily declaring that they are no more persuasive than any other ad agency, of course, because they’ve gotten in trouble for it).

Antonio García Martínez at Wired magazine on the noisy fallacies of psychographic targeting.

For the impatient, my fundamental thesis is this: Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.

* In a strange radio related twist, Cambridge Analytica’s offices at 55 New Oxford Street are in the same building as many of the UK radio industry’s offices including Radiocentre, RAJAR and Digital Radio UK! But it’s a largish office, and other companies share the building too.