The Cambridge Analytica Furor: Partisan Hype or Genuine Scandal?

Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign copied tactics from the Obama campaign's playbook. Should that change how we view the supposed Facebook scandal?


Senators and members of Congress wondering what to ask the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, when he turns up Tuesday and Wednesday of this week to testify on Capitol Hill might try this one: "How is what Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign did with Facebook data in 2016 any different from what the Obama campaign did in earlier years?"

Zuckerberg's answer would be useful in sorting out how much of the election-related Facebook furor is partisan hype, and how much is a genuine scandal.

The parallels between the Trump campaign's use of Facebook data and the Obama campaign's have already drawn some press attention. The Washington Post reported, "in 2011, Carol Davidsen, director of data integration and media analytics for Obama for America, built a database of every American voter using the same Facebook developer tool used by Cambridge."

The Post reported, "any time people used Facebook's log-in button to sign on to the campaign's website, the Obama data scientists were able to access their profile as well as their friends' information."

"We ingested the entire U.S. social graph," the Post quoted Davidsen as saying. "We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile, and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all."

A Richmond-Times Dispatch editorial observed, "Back then, the media gushed over how brilliantly the Obama campaign had mastered social media. Privacy concerns rarely got raised. …Nobody seemed to be much troubled by this until team Trump did the same thing."

For an example of the gushing genre, consider a 2012 Guardian article about the Obama campaign's digital effort. "The significance of the fusion of Facebook and voter file data is hard to overemphasise…. the campaign can distribute customised content designed specifically for its Facebook fans to share with their much wider circle of friends. The messages can be honed to a particular demographic, age, gender, etc—as well as set of interests, and targeted on the most hotly contested parts of the most crucial battleground states."

The Guardian reported that when Obama volunteers used Facebook to login to the Obama campaign website, "Consciously or otherwise, the individual volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page—home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends—directly into the central Obama database."

President Obama's 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, tweeted that it was "misleading" to conflate the Obama 2012 and Trump 2016 use of Facebook data. "The '12 campaign told voters what they were sharing and for what purpose," he tweeted, in a comment that was retweeted by Joe Rospars, the chief digital strategist of the Obama campaigns and the founder and CEO of Blue State Digital.

The "consciously or otherwise" phrase in the Guardian article suggests that if the Obama volunteers were told about how their data would be used, they might not have been that focused on the details of it. And the key issue, anyway, isn't what the Obama volunteers were told, but what, as the Guardian article put it, "crucially," their network of friends were told. Facebook was allowing marketers to access the data not only of consenting campaign volunteers, but, "crucially," of the friends of those volunteers, who may have been undecided voters and who probably didn't even know that their data had been sucked into some campaign database.

A Wired article explained, "Back then, Facebook was a digital darling — but the idea that it allowed third parties to access people's data without their direct consent now seems ludicrous."

Writing at Forbes, Kalev Leetaru notes that the 2016 Ted Cruz campaign used the same Cambridge Analytica data and did not win the presidential nomination. Leetaru wonders, "Could it be that the public is suddenly worried about Facebook's influence because they see it as the only possible explanation for an election they cannot otherwise understand?"

That would be another fine question for some senator to put to Zuckerberg.