Did leaked Facebook data swing the 2016 vote?

[Last updated 3/22/2018]

Video added 3/19/2018

The Guardian published an article about how a company called Cambridge Analytica used unauthorized data obtained from Facebook to help swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

The Facebook “likes” and other data were used to draw psychological profiles of individual voters, who were then targeted with messages based on those profiles.

A year or so ago, I made a post, based on an earlier article in The Guardian and an expose by the Real News Network, about how Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica to identify idealistic liberals, young women and African-Americans in key states, and feed them information to discourage them from voting for Hillary Clinton.

Many people question whether such manipulation was possible on a significant scale.  I am not qualified to say.

The thing is, targeted messages don’t have to work every time, or even most of the time—just enough times to tip the balance.   And the technology is being constantly improved, so even if they didn’t make a difference in 2016, they may affect the next election and the one after that.

I don’t have good ideas as to what to do about this.   It is not unethical to send accurate information to someone you think will respond to it.  Does it become unethical when the information and its target are chosen by an artificial intelligence program?  At the very least, we the people ought to be able to know where the messages come from.

Afterthought [3/20/2018]

After thinking this over for a couple of days,  I’m of two minds about Cambridge Analytica and similar companies.

On the one hand, it is alarming to think that a company, using artificial intelligence algorithms to scan data available on the Internet, can create more-or-less accurate profiles of individuals, and then use that information to “prime” people, without their knowing it into accepting political propaganda, by means described in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Even if these political consultants can’t quite do what they claim to be able to do now, it’s a matter of time before somebody is.  Of course the use of psychological knowledge to manipulate voters and consumers goes back to the 1920s, Edward Bernays and The Engineering of Consent.  Thomas Frank notes that we have had “advertising panics” since Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders in 1957.

But in the story of the boy who cried wolf, the ending was that one day the wolf really came.  Whatever can be done, will be done, by someone, unless there is a way to stop it.

On the other hand, what Cambridge Analytica is accused of doing to sway the 2016 elections, is providing selected voters with accurate information  – namely, that Hillary Clinton once called black people “superpredators,” that she has close ties to Wall Street, etc.   I don’t see how this can be called criminal.

Afterthought 2 [3/20/2018]

There is a Russian angle to this.  I don’t know how much weight to give it.  Alexandr Kogan, who was in charge of gathering the Facebook data, didn’t tell anyone that he had a teaching position and did research at St. Petersburg State University in Russia on social media.

Cambridge Analytica also made a presentation on its work to officials of Lukoil, the Russian state oil and gas company.

There’s every reason to believe that the Russian government knew about what Cambridge Analytica was doing and approved of it.

I don’t see any reason to believe that the Russian government initiated Cambridge Analytica’s work or provided the company with any resources.  Cambridge Analytica’s big funder was Robert Mercer, a right-wing American billionaire.

I don’t think there’s anything unusual about officials of a big energy company, whether in Russia or elsewhere, taking an interest in political manipulation.

Afterthought 3  [3/20/2018]

As The Atlantic’s David A. Graham asked:  If Cambridge Analytica has these vast powers of manipulation, why would they even need to talk about sting operations and other skullduggery?

Afterthought 4  [3/27/2018]

Yasha Levine’s article in The Baffler shows how Cambridge Analytica is a small part of a very wide system of survelllance and manipulation..


The Cambridge Analytica Con by Yasha Levine for The Baffler.  [Added 3/27/2018]  This puts things in perspective.

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tools’ – meet the data war whistleblower by Carole Cadwalladr for The Guardian’s Cambridge Analytica Files.   Hat tip to O.

Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St. Petersburg University by Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison for The Guardian.  [Added later]

Cambridge Analytica boasts of dirty tricks to swing elections by Emma Graham-Harrison, Carole Cadwalladr and Hillary Osborne for The Guardian.  [Added 3/19/2018]

Not Even Cambridge Analytica Believed Its Hype by David A. Graham for The Atlantic.  [Added 3/20/2018]

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions by Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore and Carole Cadwalladr for The New York Times.

How Trump Conquered Facebook Without Russian Ads by Antonia Garcia Martinez for Wired.  Hat tip to Pete’s Politics and Variety.

Cambridge Analytica Ain’t Nuthin’ – Look Out for i360 and Data Trust by Greg Palast.  [Added 3/19/2018]

Facebook, Not Cambridge Analytica, Is the Source of the Problem by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg.  [Added 3/21/2018]

Cambridge Analytica and Social Media Panic by Brendan Michael Dougherty for National Review.  [Added 3/21/2018]

What’s genius for Obama is scandal when it comes to Trump by Ben Shapiro for The Hill.  {Added 3/22/2018]


Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “Did leaked Facebook data swing the 2016 vote?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    If we are to have fair elections, we need effective election laws which are enforced. In this case, foreign actors are said to have been illegally involved. Payments to Stormy may have violated election law. I hope these cases will be brought to trial. But the larger problem is money–According to the “NY Times,” the Mercer family invested 15 million in Cambridge Analytica’s underhanded work..


  2. Edward Says:

    “I don’t have good ideas as to what to do about this. ”

    One thing to do is to restore privacy. Our privacy is violated by both corporations and the government.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: