On 27 March, international media reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will testify before the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee to answer questions regarding Cambridge Analytica’s usage of the social media giant’s collected data in its effort to allegedly manipulate the 2016 US presidential elections.
Suspicions about Cambridge Analytica began to pick up during the latter half of 2016, after it became known that President Donald Trump - then candidate Trump - had hired the company to handle his promotion in the digital sphere. The Trump campaign was drawn to CA and the company’s claim of being able to offer hyper-targeted and hyper-persuasive messages to people via social media.
Cambridge Analytica has some unique methods when it comes to mass advertising. In a 2016 interview chief executive Alexander Nix explained that “the traditional model where 50 million people receive the same blanket advert is being replaced by extremely individualistic targeting,” adding that “today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual [user]” all gleaned from social media and other internet platform usage. "So we're able,” explained Nix, “to identify clusters of people who care about a particular issue, pro-life or gun rights, and to then create an advert on that issue, and we can nuance the messaging of that advert according to how people see the world, according to their personalities."
While the capabilities boasted by Cambridge Analytica may be impressive, they have an undeniable Orwellian tinge to them.
Suspicions about CA and their methods began to build traction after Britain’s Channel 4 sent a journalist undercover to glean first-hand information about the company. Under the guise of a fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka, the Channel 4 worker was able to have several conversations with CA executives, including Nix, between November 2017 and January 2018. In these conversations, executives claimed that in addition to their unconventional use of big data, CA uses other more nefarious tactics, including entrapment and bribes in secret projects to affect political elections in countries across the world, ranging from Argentina to the Czech Republic to India and Nigeria. The full number of elections the company has been involved in over the past decade and a half may be as high as 200.
After the inside job of Channel 4, the reputation of Cambridge Analytica was hit again, when former Director of Research at CA, Christopher Wylie, delivered documentation to British and U.S. media detailing the secret workings behind his former employer’s operations. On 27 March, Wylie gave testimony to the U.K. parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee. In addition to the release of the Channel 4 investigation, Britain had another reason for getting to the bottom of CA’s activities - reports indicating the company’s role in influencing the U.K. Brexit vote in 2016.
Wylie’s statements were rather damning. Referring back to CA’s work for the Trump campaign, the former researcher called the company’s work “military-style information operations” that had no place in any democratic process. Wylie laid out more shocking claims about CA’s past deals, even going so far as to imply that a CA executive was assassinated, perhaps at the behest of the company, after a deal with Kenyan politicians had gone sour.
Wylie will not be the only interviewee of the DCMS. British lawmakers delivered a summons to Facebook as well demanding that the company send an executive to appear before the committee. Facebook has promised to send either Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer or Chief Product Officer Chris Cox to speak to DCMS members.
Despite the hype about revelations on CA’s alleged roles in some of the biggest political votes of the modern era, there is still much doubt as to how much influence they actually exerted. A slew of researchers have been analyzing the effectiveness of mass data gleaning and applying it in former political elections for years, especially after Barack Obama decided to utilize very similar methods in his own presidential campaigns. The results of much of this research have cast tremendous doubt on the effectiveness of targeted influence.
But a discussion about how much of a difference targeted political advertising makes misses the point. What the free world needs - and what will hopefully ensue as a result of all these findings – is a serious discussion on how to deal with deliberate subversive schemes that leverage big data in an attempt to manipulate society.