If you happen to do a Google search on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in one sentence you will come across headlines such as; “50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica“, “Facebook shares drop amid fallout from Cambridge Analytica scandal” and “Exposed: How Cambridge Analytica influenced Kenyan poll“.
But before we go hitting the share button on any of the hundreds of articles online regarding the debacle surrounding these two companies, it is prudent we understand how we got here first:
In the Beginning…
Cambridge Analytica is a British firm that uses data mining, data analysis and strategic communication to push political campaigns. It was founded in 2013, as a spin-off of Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) Group, to participate in American politics. The rise to fame for the company, however, was after their involvement in the Trump election in 2016. Cambridge Analytica is believed to have played a key role in the election of Donald Trump, thanks to a series of online campaigns that the company is believed to have run.
Cambridge Analytica built an algorithm back in 2014 based on Facebook profiles. The algorithm was meant to combine micro-targeting and psychology in order to build a psychological profile of a person based on their likes and social media interactions and return a prediction of how this said person would vote. This profiling would be integral to Cambridge Analytica’s pitch as it means they would be able to target people based on their personality and not just as a voter, thus delivering relevant campaign messages in an effort to sway the person’s vote.
Profiling people’s personalities on Facebook
“On social media, you curate yourself. You put so much information about who you are in one single place, so whenever you go and you like something, you are giving me a clue as to who you are as a person… All of this can be captured very easily and run through an algorithm that learns who you are,” says Chris Wylie, former Research Director at Cambridge Analytica, in an interview with UK’s Channel 4 News.
So Cambridge Analytica picks your profile ID number, puts it through a custom algorithm that will output your personality trait and a prediction of who you are likely to vote for. Once the company knows who you are and how you would respond to certain stimuli, they would target you with campaign messages that you are likely to react to. These campaign messages would include; tailored topics, such as the economy and terrorism. The data analytics firm would also go as far as creating content on the internet, such as blogs, websites, with targeted messages all in an effort to change your mind about a certain political figure.
Chris Wylie reveals that by the time Cambridge Analytica started Trump’s campaign, they had profiles from numerous datasets on more than 230 Million American voters.
Chris reveals that back in 2014 when Cambridge Analytica wanted to put their algorithm to use, they sought the help of a professor, Aleksandr Kogan, who offered to help them get data from Facebook through an app that he had built. The app, thisisyourdigitallife, was initially meant for research purposes and it offered users a small financial token if they answered a few questions regarding their personalities.
This app would target Facebook users, who would give it permission to collect their profile data such as status updates and likes. Unknown to the user, the permission they gave to thisisyourdigitallife, allowed it to grab not only their profile information but also their friend’s profile information, as long as they had not disabled this option in Facebook’s security settings.
The data collected through thisisyourdigitallife would be used as the blueprint for Cambridge Analytica. The company is said to have spent approximately $1M to collect this data, “We spent almost a million dollars doing this, it wasn’t some tiny pilot project it was the core of what Cambridge Analytica became. It allowed us to move into the hearts and minds of American voters in a way that had never been done before,” said Chris.
Cambridge Analytica does list Kenya as one of the “beneficiaries” of its services, alongside other African countries such as Gabon, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia. However, what is unclear, is whether the company used these same tactics to run campaigns in the respective countries.
“It wasn’t me…”
In the same interview, Chris reveals that Facebook learnt of this huge misuse of data back in 2015. He says that the company contacted him, Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and asked them to delete the data they had collected from Facebook. The three reported that they had deleted said data but Facebook did not do a follow up to ascertain this, they just took their word for it.
The issue arising now is that Cambridge Analytica acquired data from Facebook illegally, people are calling it a breach, and the company used this data to manipulate voters. Facebook laments that such a scenario should not have occurred but refuses to label the incident as a data breach, claiming that users agreed to give out their Facebook data willingly through friends and default privacy settings.
Facebook also point a finger at Aleksandr Kogan, saying that he lied to them about the use of the data collected and also violated their policies by passing the data on to Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, on the other hand, says that Aleksandr Kogan assured them that Facebook’s policies allowed him to share this data. Professor Aleksandr Kogan then says he had the right to use the data for commercial purposes.
At the moment, the matter is being investigated and Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica, Professor Aleksandr Kogan and Chris Wylie from their platform. This, however, is too little too late as Facebook shares have been reported to have tanked over $40 Billion since this fiasco started.