By David Harsanyi
What the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal lacks in relevance it sure makes up for in melodramatic rhetoric. Take Bloomberg, for instance, which reported, “The revelations of the apparent skulduggery that helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election keep sending shock waves across the political landscape.” Well, it’s partially true. Everyone is talking about it. The story has consumed most of the mainstream media.
The theory goes something like this: Facebook obtained information on users who took a personality quiz with their online friends. Another outlet, the advertising firm Cambridge Analytica, harvested that information, brainwashed a bunch of rubes and then yada, yada, yada … Russia! Former Cambridge Analytica contractor Christopher Wylie told CNN that while at the company, he helped build a “psychological warfare weapon” to “exploit mental vulnerabilities that our algorithms showed that (Facebook users) had.” So, in other words, he worked in the advertising business.
Those who have covered politics for more than a single Trump cycle should know better than to use this kind of unnerving rhetoric for what amounts to nothing more than average microtargeting, which has been used by hundreds, if not thousands, of firms. Yet now, when it serves to bolster convoluted theories about an election having been overthrown, terms like “psychographics” and “breach” are being thrown around to make it sound like someone hacked into voter rolls after boring into the deepest recesses of our collective soul.
Here’s a thought: If you’re uncomfortable with data mining and your information being shared, don’t take surveys. Because, guess what, you don’t have to be on Facebook. You don’t have to use Twitter. You don’t have a constitutional right to play FarmVille without answering a survey. You don’t get free stuff. The very existence of social media and tech companies is predicated on mining data so that they, or third parties, can sell you things. That has always been the deal.
Cambridge Analytica is a shady company owned by the British firm SCL Group — and, reportedly, in part by the right-wing-funding Mercer family — which claimed it could build models that identify persuadable voters by using six key personality types. Now it looks like Cambridge Analytica kept data it shouldn’t have. Yet the effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s targeting was as questionable as its business practices. As others have pointed out, most Republicans used the firm to open to door to the Mercers’ checkbook.
By constantly using the word “breach,” reporters are trying to insinuate that someone stole voter data that typically was off-limits. Cambridge Analytica was allowed to pull that profile data. Facebook only changed its policy in early 2015. But before the general election, the Trump campaign dropped Cambridge Analytica for the Republican National Committee data, reportedly never using the any of the “psychographic” information. According to CBS News, in September 2016, it had “tested the RNC data, and it proved to be vastly more accurate.”
Even if the campaign hadn’t, however, its efforts would have been akin to those being heralded as revolutionary when serving the interests of Democrats. In fact, Facebook allowed the Obama campaign to harvest data in the same way that is now generating headlines and handwringing. Do you remember any outrage and trepidation over the privacy and manipulation of your thoughts in 2012? The only consistent position the left seems to take these days is that the mechanisms it uses to keep power automatically transform into something nefarious and undemocratic when the opposition uses them. If anything, there should be concerned about the ideological double standards of yet another tech giant.
Most of all, so what if voters were being “targeted”? Part of living in a free society means being bombarded by messages we don’t like. The entire Facebook-Russiabots scare is predicated on the notion that people don’t have free will. It’s only once we start micromanaging the information Americans consume that we begin undermining choices. Of course, people shouldn’t get their news from Facebook. And a reliable Fourth Estate that reports without bias to help Americans navigate through this messy contemporary digital life would be helpful. But the Cambridge Analytica story is just another example of how it fails.