With the recent uproar over Facebook’s privacy practices when it comes to allowing political organizations access to mountains of data, we may be coming closer to the end of data-driven politics. Well, maybe not entirely the end of it, but perhaps data-drive politics in a far more controlled way, with less rampant access to your personal profiles and the information you share across various social media platforms.
The data-driven model started with the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 which pioneered the technique of gathering data from social media, namely Facebook, and building out voter models in all fifty states based on your likes and interests on the social media giant.
As an example of just how the Obama campaign saddled social media during his first presidential campaign, US News published this op-ed on November 19, 2008:
Obama enjoyed a groundswell of support among, for lack of a better term, the Facebook generation. He will be the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the Web.
This election was the first in which all candidates—presidential and congressional—attempted to connect directly with American voters via online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. It has even been called the “Facebook election.” It is no coincidence that one of Obama’s key strategists was 24-year-old Chris Hughes, a Facebook cofounder. It was Hughes who masterminded the Obama campaign’s highly effective Web blitzkrieg—everything from social networking sites to podcasting and mobile messaging.
Obama’s masterful leveraging of Web 2.0 platforms marks a major E-ruption in electoral politics—in America and elsewhere—as campaigning shifts from old-style political machines toward the horizontal dynamics of online social networks. The Web, a perfect medium for genuine grass-roots political movements, is transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Power is diffused because everybody can participate. The Web is being leveraged not only for vote-getting but—as the Obama campaign demonstrated—for grass-roots fundraising, too. The Web can be a formidable electoral money-pump.
Prior to 2008 and the rise of social media, political data had to be gathered and assembled the old-fashioned way: by hand. Volunteers would spread out around the country, going door to door, asking friendly voters for information, maybe handing out a stack of bumper stickers, and recording as much information as possible about important trends in key swing districts. In 2008, however, all that changed as the Obama campaign harnessed the power of Facebook data to model nearly every precinct in the United States.
Jumping ahead from 2008 to 2012, the trend continued and eventually one of the Obama campaign directors was nearly bragging about how decisively they were able to use Facebook data to drive their message and target advertising to voters based on their interests, as the UK Daily Mail reports:
Facebook allowed the Obama campaign to access the personal data of users during the 2012 campaign because they supported the Democratic candidate according to a high ranking staffer.
Carol Davidsen, who worked as the media director at Obama for America and has spoken about this in the past, explained on Twitter that she and her team were able to ingest massive amounts of information from the social network after getting permission from Facebook users to access their list of friends.
‘Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing,’ wrote Davidsen.
‘I worked on all of the data integration projects at [Obama for America]. This was the only one that felt creepy, even though we played by the rules, and didn’t do anything I felt was ugly, with the data,’ stated Davidsen.
Perfected by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the topic of data-driven political modeling now brings us to the present day, and controversy over a political firm called Cambridge Analytica, and their ties to the Trump campaign. Things have changed in terms of privacy policies since 2012, and Facebook does not allow third-party developers or campaigns as much access to private user profile information as they did during the time when it was being used by the Obama campaign.
Since developers and political modeling firms are aware of these changes in the Facebook privacy practices, it has now become illegal to access or use this information for data-gathering purposes. The Verge picks up the story from here:
Facebook said late Friday that it had suspended Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), along with its political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, for violating its policies around data collection and retention. The companies, which ran data operations for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, are widely credited with helping Trump more effectively target voters on Facebook than his rival, Hillary Clinton. While the exact nature of their role remains somewhat mysterious, Facebook’s disclosure suggests that the company improperly obtained user data that could have given it an unfair advantage in reaching voters. [Emphasis added]
Facebook said it cannot determine whether or how the data in question could have been used in conjunction with election ad campaigns. Cambridge Analytica did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a blog post, Facebook deputy general counsel Paul Grewal laid out how SCL came into possession of the user data. In 2015, Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, created an app named “thisisyourdigitallife” that promised to predict aspects of users’ personalities. About 270,000 people downloaded it and logged in through Facebook, giving Kogan access to information about their city of residence, Facebook content they had liked, and information about their friends.
In response to these allegations, Trump campaign officials are offering mixed accounts as to the success they had working with Cambridge Analytica, and they heavily dispute the notion that using their data models helped push Donald Trump to victory:
Brad Parscale, the digital director for Trump’s 2016 campaign and campaign manager for his 2020 re-election bid, slammed the firm on Twitter for taking credit for Trump’s victory. “So incredibly false and ridiculous,” he said, declaring Cambridge’s comments “an overblown sales pitch.”
Former Trump campaign officials insist they never relied on Cambridge for voter targeting or persuasion. And they say the Trump team never bought into the so-called “psychographic method” Cambridge chief executive Alexander Nix was peddling to US political campaigns.
Trump campaign officials including Parscale were more complimentary about the firm’s role immediately following the 2016 victory. During a December 2016 forum hosted by Google, Parscale inferred that Cambridge provided a much-needed infusion of data staff for a bare-bones campaign.
Parscale noted that “Cambridge actually provided a full time employee that could sit next to me all day” and help digest data.
It’s almost always the truth that technology is years ahead of the law, especially when it comes to the internet and regulating privacy. Back in 2008 and 2012, Facebook was in the wild west when it came to letting third-party developers have access to massive amounts of user data. In fact, stories about the cutting edge use of social media by the Obama campaign were frequently citing the development of data-model politics as the wave of the future, and a brilliant move to keep the Democratic Party ahead of the curve. Republican Mitt Romney attempted to build something similar in 2012, but the entire project, code-named “ORCA,” never fully materialized and instead actually caused major problems on Election Day.
Since that time, as questions about user privacy and the practices of large social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have come into focus, moods have changed on Capitol Hill and among social media users about just how much personal information should companies like Facebook be allowed to sell as a product for advertising and data purposes.
What was once hailed as innovative in 2008 is now seen as a violation of privacy in 2016. Whatever happens with the Cambridge Analytica scandal will probably not affect the White House or the Trump 2020 re-election effort, but it will likely serve to shape the way data is used in the future, especially when it comes to politics.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be testifying before Congress sometime soon, according to WCJB:
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Monday called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged misuse of Facebook data from up to 50 million user profiles, and the possibility that that data may not have been not destroyed in 2015, as the data firm certified to the social media company.
Data-driven politics will never quite be the same after this, for better or worse.