Cambridge Analytica Was Doing Marketing, Not Black Magic

There's no reason for alarm (yet) over a Facebook data "breach" that benefited a firm with ties to Trump's campaign.


Lauren Hurley/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A little-known company called Cambridge Analytica (CA) is at the center of a breaking story about Facebook, the Trump campaign, and possibly shady data exchanges. But it's unclear whether CA did anything wrong here, or if it was just engaged in the kind of micro-targeted marketing common in consumer and political campaigns.

On Sunday, Facebook announced that it had suspended the accounts of CA and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). "In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica [and to] Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies," explained Facebook VP Paul Grewal in a statement.

Facebook Login lets websites and apps offer the option to sign in using your Facebook account, and it lets them request and obtain data from those who do. Kogan had created a personality-test app that was download by around 270,000 people, according to Facebook. This, Facebook says, gave Kogan access to such user info as "the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it."

All of this is standard. Where Kogan crossed a line and violated Facebook's terms of service was in passing this information on to third parties. When Facebook found this out, it suspended Kogan's Login account and demanded he, CA, and Wylie delete the data; all confirmed that they did. But now Facebook says it has reason to suspect that "not all data was deleted."

What's lifted this story into big news territory is the fact that the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica in the summer of 2016.

Senate Intelligence Committee members immediately called for more regulation of digital political advertising and more investigations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) wants Mark Zuckerberg to appear before a Judiciary panel. Meanwhile, the U.K.'s Information Commissioner's Office announced this morning that it's launching its own investigation. State prosecutors are wading in too.

Both U.S. and U.K. officials say they're concerned that Facebook didn't notify users about Kogan's "breach." But Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos insisted in a series of now-deleted Saturday tweets that calling it a breach was wrong:

See more from Stamos here.

CA issued its own series of sassy tweets, starting with "Reality Check: Cambridge Analytica uses client and commercially and publicly available data; we don't use or hold any Facebook data." It said the company "did not use any Facebook data for the 2016 Trump campaign" and opined that "advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that."

"This isn't a spy movie," CA continued. "We're a data analytics company doing research & analysis on commercial, public and data sets for clients" that span "the political mainstream."

It also pointed out that Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign was "famously data-driven" and "pioneered microtargeting" of the sort CA does.

Critics of the kerfuffle over CA's actions have also been pointing to the Obama campaign. In late 2014, Facebook shifted its policy to prevent future campaigns from using the same sort of "sophisticated social targeting"—heralded then as "a powerful new form of voter outreach"—that Obama data gurus had employed.

CA says it didn't use the Facebook data to target potential Trump voters, and it says it didn't know that Kogan wasn't supposed to share the data his app had collected. But even if it did use the data that way, and even if it did know where it came from, the only real violation would be using Facebook user data in a way that company itself sanctioned until four years ago. Calling such actions "a project to turn tens of millions of Facebook profiles into a unique political weapon" (as The Guardian does) hovers somewhere between hyperbolic and flat-out wrong. It drastically mischaracterizes the nature and novelty of microtargeted political ads, in a way strongly reminiscent of the whole "Russian election hacking" hoopla as a whole.

There's an emerging tendency—one seen repeatedly when new forms of media emerge—to regard any form of online advertising or social media campaigns as deceptive and devious if political actors are involved. People worried about the same thing when targeted robocalls began, and when TV political ads were new, and so on, back throughout the history of politics and persuasion.

With every iteration of this, we see the same fear that people are powerless against the secret messages encorded into these ads. But as the Tufts political scientist Eitan Hersh tweeted Sunday, "every claim about psychographics etc made by or about [Cambridge Analytica] is BS." This is nothing like a precise science or a devious plot here.

This would be a fine opportunity to discuss how much Facebook users really understand about who sees their data, or how we can improve Americas' privacy, or how Facebook tries to be all things to all people. Instead, a lot of people want to force this into a narrative about election influence. In doing so, they ascribe way too much power and sophistication to advertisers and political consultants, and way too little responsibility and literacy to the rest of us.

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  1. Solution: delete your account.

    1. Don’t have to, never had one.

      What did people think would happen when they used Facebook to log in to various websites?

      1. What’s worse is that shit doesn’t even work.

    2. This is such a non-story. So this firm collected publicly disclosed data, used it to profile users, and then sent targeted political ads to the users based on the profiles. So what?

      1. But TRUMP is involved maybe, so errbody shit your draws as quickly and as fully as possible!

        1. What I’m most worried about is why they’re called Analytica instead of just Analytics. Being in Cambridge is also pretty suspicious (Either England or Massachusetts, it does not matter)

          1. It’s easier to get a Trade Mark on “Analytica”.

    3. Or just use fake personal data on your accounts, made up as you go along.

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  2. ENB is writing about something other than sex?

    1. She can do that, you know. She’s not your mom.

      1. How do you know? HOW DO YOU KNOW?

        1. That would require having intimate relations with a man, an idea she finds downright repulsive.

          1. “She must be a lesbian” is how Mikey handles rejection. That is why he thinks there is a plot to turn us all gay. Just look at all these lesbians everywhere!

            1. That’s how he knows there’s something in the water turning the women gay. How else would one explain that no one wants to be with him?

              1. Alex Jones: “First the damn frogs, now the women…what next? No, I don’t need a hug, Watson.”

        2. Everyone please welcome the youngest commenter on H&R, ENB’s secret love child. He’s been commenting here since he was 3. His parents are both libertarians, so he’s naturally very precocious.

    2. To be honest, I thought “black magic” was a euphemism for something sexual. At least that’s what Santana told me.

  3. Bottom line it for me. Did Facebook force me to vote for Trump or not?

    1. I mean, if they didn’t then how could Trump have possibly won?

    2. Nope, it was the Russians.

    3. Nope, it was the Russians.

      1. Or the squirrels.

  4. Senate Intelligence Committee members immediately called for more regulation of digital political advertising and more investigations.

    This is getting ridiculous.

    I have a friend who volunteers vigorously for the DNC every election. And he brags about going door-to-door as guided by a database of personal information about people in his state, including inferences about their likelihood to respond positively to a volunteer and vote ‘D’. “This is the bestest best political intel in the US: The republicans don’t have anything like this!”

    OK, then why don’t we begin this “investigation” with political party requirements for public database sharing and information traceability?

    Oh, wait? Suddenly its the EVUL FASHEBOOK that’s the real problem? My my. How convenient. Wouldn’t want to violate anyone’s privacy, or use information for dirty political purposes. I’m glad the politicians are all white as snow.

    1. The reason “The republicans don’t have anything like this” is that Facebook let the Democrats download their entire connection graph, and then shut the door after they were done.

      It’s a hilarious commentary on our media that the Cambridge Analytica story is big, when the same weekend this came out:

      Ex-Obama Campaign Director: It’s ‘Unfair’ Facebook Let Us ‘Ingest Entire Social Network of US’

      “A former Obama campaign official lit up the internet on Monday after claiming that Facebook allowed them to mine massive amounts of Facebook data because “they were on our side.”

      Now, comments she made in 2015 are shining even more light on exactly how extensive the data mining effort was ? and how it may have given Democrats an “unfair” data advantage going forward.

      Carol Davidsen, former director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, said the Obama campaign was able to “ingest the entire social network” in the United States.”

      Several times bigger than the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and FB was ok with THIS happening.

      1. Except, the Dems didn’t take data without people’s permission. Nor were the Republicans prevented from doing the same–they just didn’t get their act together soon enough. The Obama FB app asked users for their permission in accessing their profile and any data their friends made publicly available. Then FB gave the app users suggestions for what type of information they should share with specific friends. The FB app user was in control of the situation the whole time.

  5. So, if Cambridge Analytics weighs the same as a duck….

    1. Very small rocks

  6. So basically Faceberg got Faceberg’ed? The olds would probably call this “being hoist by your own petard.”

    Maybe the ‘Berg can back at them when he becomes our pimply-faced POTUS. Try not to laugh too hard at that one!

  7. This would be a fine opportunity to discuss how much Facebook users really understand about who sees their data”

    This would be a fine opportunity to discuss how much Facebook users really *care* about who sees “their” data.

  8. So libertarians are fine with having your data collected and sold? I look forward to hearing from Gillespie on this.

    While it may be true that Obama used microtargetting that kind of whataboutism is a cynical defensive ploy. Commenters are saying that they are not vulnerable to targeted messaging. That’s akin to saying advertising does not work and that the whole marketing industry is a scam. Propaganda works. Period. Whether it comes from the right or the left we are all susceptible to these forces. Even libertarians have daddy issues.

    1. What I keep coming back to is: politicians and political operatives are fine with buying and selling information about voters, right up until it involves Facebook, in which case, OMG?

      It doesn’t make any sense.

      If this bothers you, then politics in general should bother you. Yet I don’t see anyone complaining about politics in general.

      How old the definition of propaganda is communication intended to persuade. Gee: politicians never do that, do they? When do we force them all to shut the fuck up forever?

      Oh that’s right: we love government and we love propaganda. We just love censorship too. Well go get bent.

      1. I’m willing to complain about politicians in general.

    2. It’s really and honestly not Facebook’s fault that no one read’s the terms of service, you know. You can’t make people care about their data.

      1. I’m somewhat surprised we haven’t seen more outrage about Google search returning results that people consider fake news, or wrongthink or something.

        I saw a little bit awhile ago, but I think maybe Google proved to have too good a reputation to fuck raw. While FB is run by a pawkward motherfucker, and people are getting kind of tired of it anyway.

    3. This libertarian is fine with your data being collected and sold. If you haven’t yet figured out the old adage about how if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product it’s not my fault you’re stupid enough to get on the facebook and the twitter and the google without understanding the deal.

      At least one good thing about this is that if you don’t go MEGO on the story, there’s an explanation of why “don’t worry, it’s just anonymized meta-data” is bullshit, even if they don’t link back to some of us making the exact same point when Snowden dropped a dime on Clapper. Meta-data is like one of those logic puzzles – “Mr. White, Mr. Red and Mr. Blue are neighbors, one drives a red car, one a white, one a blue but none drive a car the color of his name. The man with the red car lives in between the man with a dog and the man with a blue car, Mr. Blue owns a cat, which man owns a parrot and what color car does he drive?” – and too many people can’t figure out how the hell you can piece together enough little snippets of information to see the whole picture.

    4. “So libertarians are fine with having your data collected and sold?”
      And you propose to avoid this exactly how?
      “Commenters are saying that they are not vulnerable to targeted messaging. That’s akin to saying advertising does not work and that the whole marketing industry is a scam. Propaganda works. Period. Whether it comes from the right or the left we are all susceptible to these forces. Propaganda works. Period. Whether it comes from the right or the left we are all susceptible to these forces..”
      Define “works”
      “Even libertarians have daddy issues.”
      Gee, TMI. Keep your problems to yourself.

    5. Obama had a huge data base on voters that he wouldn’t share with Hillary. If Obama or Trump used information collected through your Facebook acct. and it bothers you, then delete your Facebook acct. How do you think they make money?

      1. Actually, I think he did share; that and outspending Trump 2-1, and the support of most media outlets, were the only things making somebody that unpleasant competitive in the first place. The only public office she ever ran for and actually won was that Senate seat that was basically handed her on a silver platter.

    6. If your data is collected and sold because you chose to use someone else’s platform to share it and you agreed to it in the fine print upfront, without coercion, then you chose to share your data. You’re not a victim, you’re a volunteer. Maybe an uninformed volunteer. General rule for internet users, if the service you’re using is free – you are the product being sold.

    7. There aren’t a lot of actual libertarians here. A lot are simply embarrassed Republicans who want to bitch about both sides when convenient. Hence the “nothingburger” in effect comments being posted here.

      1. You can’t call this a revelation of any sort when there’s a TOS that states that Facebook mines your data and sends it to third parties for profit, like what’s being mentioned here. If you use Facebook, you agree to that, whether you were aware of this fact or not. It’s simply called not using the service, like I don’t. Sometimes, you actually have to be a rational adult about things and not want the shiniest new toy because everyone else is using it and not even read the conditions that you’ll get to use the damn thing in the first place.

  9. Wah Wah none of the outrage makes any sense, unless you factor in that Hillary Lost and TEAM RED Won. This wouldn’t even be news on page 19 if TEAM BLUE had done it

  10. Gosh, so after Obama had success using data in this way they made sure no one else could do so after his second term huh? It’s only a matter of time until Facebook is fully subsumed into the CIA, I guess.


    1. The only evidence that the decision made by FB had anything to do with Obama was the speculation in this article. FB was addressing growing privacy concerns about the use of third party apps of all kinds, not just Obama’s successful implementation.

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    1. Does your Tokelauan phishing site allow me to log in via Facebook?

  12. “In late 2014, Facebook shifted its policy to prevent future campaigns from using the same sort of “sophisticated social targeting”?heralded then as “a powerful new form of voter outreach”?that Obama data gurus had employed.”

    Or, to put it more accurately, they created a tool for the Democrats to use, and then got rid of it when Republicans found out about it and started using it.

    Because it had never been intended that anyone but Democrats get to use it.

    1. There’s an alternative explanation – they never intended white people to use it.

      1. No, this isn’t racial, it wasn’t just Obama using it in that election. They shut it down when the wrong party started using it.

        Wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if there’s some new FB analytics tool out there the Democrats have been given, which is just better hid. The whole approach of the left to these things is, “Blowback? There can’t be any blowback. After the next election the US will be a one party state!”

        Then the next election doesn’t make the US a one party state, there’s blowback, rinse and repeat. I guess they figure one of these times it will be true.

        1. When you’ve got 90% of the media doing your spin, wash, interpret-in-a-sophisticated-sounding-manner, repeat work for you, I expect your worries about “blowback” are somewhat ameliorated. It does make their flattering “we’re the smart party” claims seem kind of embarrassing, though, when they are so confident nobody on their side can analyze, or will remember, their bullshit.

    2. Actually it was in spring 2014, before anyone had an idea of Trump running, and when everyone assumed the eventual winner would be HRC. So…I doubt it was about keeping Republicans from using it. (Romney used FB app data, but came to the party too late to be effective.) Also, the method used by Obama and Romney didn’t involve surreptitiously targeting people or their data. It provided FB users suggestions for who among their friends they should consider sharing posts, articles, etc. The FB user was in control of what and with whom it was shared.

  13. Progressive counterculture crassness and marketing make me sick, and it’s a pain to tune it out.

  14. No one cares except that it’s vaguely associated with Trump and the guy has a vaguely Russian name.

  15. I agree 100% with ELizabeth Nolan Brown above. I do want to point out that, while Psychology is currently more witch-doctoring than science, we will probably develop a real science of psychology in the future. We will have a fairly good understandin of how the human brain and mind work, what causes various “neuroses”, etc. We will probably be able to cure most neuroses, addicitons, etc. (Including my tendency to spend way too much time on Facebook, Quora, and commenting on articles in Reason.)

    But implicit in that is that we may be able to get people to do things for reasons that most people would call “nefarious” (wicked/abominable, from “not right/lawful”, or “not what the gods want”). Selling people things they don’t need and don’t even really want except for the moment when they are affected by the advertisement or whatever, stuff like that.

    I fear for that day, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it, _yet_.

    1. ” I do want to point out that, while Psychology is currently more witch-doctoring than science, we will probably develop a real science of psychology in the future.”

      I’m personally dubious about that. It’s the basic problem of a system trying to model another system that’s just as complex as itself.

      And, which has access to the efforts to model it! The very existence of the science of psychology effects human behavior itself.

  16. But, but…Trump!!

  17. If you do business or social on the web you are a target for advertisers. Welcome to the 21st century.

  18. The most revoltin’ development I have yet heard on this was the commentator on NPR this morning claiming — without even an effort to justify it — that Trump may have handed this data on to the Russians to use to influence the election.

    Paranoia, thy name is liberal.

    1. Your tax dollars at work.

  19. There’s an emerging tendency?one seen repeatedly when new forms of media emerge?to regard any form of online advertising or social media campaigns as deceptive and devious if political actors are involved.

    Only when done by those to the right of Stalin.

    1. You know who else was (slightly) to the right of Stalin?

  20. There’s no reason for alarm (yet) over a Facebook data “breach” that benefited a firm with ties to Trump’s campaign.

    There is reason for alarm because it benefited Trump, of course! /sarc

  21. “People worried about the same thing when targeted robocalls began,”
    Robocalls are a plague on society. That ENB thinks they are acceptable is almost as wacky as her sympathy for sex traffickers.

  22. Ha, ha, ha. More manufactured outrage, as part of “Operation Sour Grapes” from the KRM.

    I’d love the re-emergence of rational debate, in many quarters

  23. Boy, Ms Nolan, did you ever strike-out on this one. Nowhere did you mention the Mercers, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, and how they are intertwined with Cambridge Analytica.

    “British TV network Channel 4 News has caught Cambridge Analytica executives admitting on camera that they’ve used bribes and Ukrainian sex workers to try to help the political candidates they’ve been working for. This came after the New York Times revealed this weekend that Cambridge Analytica held meetings with Russia and then lied about it. Now it turns out Bannon and the Mercers are suddenly finding themselves in the same undesirable boat, thanks to the explosive scandals coming out of a company they all have deep ties to: Cambridge Analytica.”

    So it was just a marketing company, whew!

    1. Oops, failed to mention Jared Kushner’s involvement in the marketing campaign. None of this, of course, was intended to skirt the law.

  24. Since we have no public evidence of who used this data or how it was used, i’m not ready to close the books on the FB/CA mess.

    Pitching for candidates is one thing. But we know that there has been a concerted effort to undermine the foundations of our government calling into question:

    the fairness & accuracy of elections (a slap in the face of the half million or so fellow citizens who volunteer their time to oversee fairness & accuracy of elections in the US).

    the judicial system, a slap in the face of citizens who populate juries, as well as court officers & the police.

    the belief that a person can not overcome preferred personal outcomes in the performance of their sworn duties to the Constitution as a police officer, a member of the military, a jurist, a court clerk, a poll worker, or any other public servant.

    The growing currency of completely irrational conspiracy theories.

    The complete list of similar issues is both long & distinguished, but you get the idea.

    On closer examination, it may be the work of FB/CA is just like selling toothpaste, but from what i’ve seen so far I doubt it. I’m certainly not ready to write it off as a “non-story.”

  25. Nobody on here seems to have read the actual details revealed by the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who created the original data-collecting app for these guys. There was a lot more than marketing going on. Stolen data, helping wikileaks distribute stolen emails, compiling psychological profiles with data they didn’t own or have the right to use, etc. Now, CA execs are on tape explaining how they use sex workers, bribes, and other work “from the shadows” to impact elections around the world. Real stand-up guys.

    1. This gives me the same feel that the O’Keefe videos do; Is it really that easy to walk up to somebody, start chatting them up, and next thing you know they’re confessing heinous crimes? You wouldn’t think so, but here you are, proof to the contrary.

      Welcome to the dirty underbelly of politics. Cambridge Analytica isn’t as different from GPS Fusion as some would like you to think.

  26. Amazing how many “libertarians” are rushing to defend Trump. Sure, he may have made it easier for you to pollute streams, profit from public lands, or screw over your employees, but do you REALLY see him as a protector of any form of civil liberties? Sad. Nothing says liberty more than a half-baked steel and aluminum tariff!

  27. another assumption by the “regressives” that we can’t think for ourselves, Kind’a how the Dems treat racial minorities. i.e. voter ID…lol

  28. DuckDuckgo and WHATSAPP – be done with the tyranny of Google and Facebook!

  29. Of course, this case has gained a lot of hype. It’s strange to me that the security of Facebook data has suffered so much because of the actions of one person. I think that such data would like to own any best influencer marketing platform. But I am sure that after this case, Facebook will revise its policy of user data protection.

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