News & Commentary

What data is Facebook mining? And wasn’t Cambridge Analytica busted for it 3 years ago?

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Facebook “mines” our personal information and sells it to advertisers who use it to target ads at us. You keep “liking” pink kittens and you’ll get ads selling baby cat food and pink hair dye. That simple business model brings in most of the company’s $42 billion annual income.

The company earns nearly $20 per year from each and every one of its 231 million American and Canadian users’ data. Their goal is to assemble 98 data-points on all their two BILLION users worldwide. The ‘data-points’ are the answers to questions such as ‘are you in a long-distance relationship (broken down by country and length of time served)’, ‘is your secret passion FJ Holdens or saving baby white whales?’ and 96 others like that.

In political terms, the data miners might match what a voter “likes” on Facebook with other lists they have acquired. For example, they could run a list of voters who own a gun against people who “like” stories about Hillary Clinton’s baby from outer space (I’m making some of this up), then send all Facebookers who like the alien story a message about how Trump will protect their right to own as many goddamn guns as they want.

Cambridge Analytica is a data-mining company that markets political candidates by voter-manipulation, most famously in getting out the Brexit vote in the UK and getting Trump elected in the US. It’s British parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories boasts of fomenting coups and tipping elections all over the world, since 1993.

In 2015, The Guardian broke a story of how CA used Facebook to collect data on 50 million American voters. They did it by buying space on Facebook to promote a lame IQ test, which was actually designed to learn things about the suckers who filled in their answers. But CA also collected likes and other data on all the suckers’ friends, so Facebook told CA to delete the extra tens of million friends’ data and CA said ‘Yes we will’, and then they didn’t. Instead, they sent them all political messages saying Trump will do what you like and “crooked Hillary” won’t.

What has lit a fire under this story now, three years later, is that last month a reporter from British TV Channel 4 posed as an election campaign manager from Sri Lanka, and asked CA what they could do for his clients. He met with the top dogs at CA in a ritzy London pub and secretly videotaped their chat, a tape now shown on every TV and internet news channel on the planet.

Biggest click-bait of all is the softly toffee CA boss Alexander Nix explaining that they could “bring some very beautiful, Ukranian girls” to do something in the candidate’s house. “We find that works very well,” he says smugly.

Then CA’s head of data, Alex Tayler skites about how they managed Trump’s triumph. “You moved more people out in those key swing states on election day. That’s how he won the election.”

The reporter asks Nix about being grilled by angry Democratic party senators and Nix says: “They’re politicians, they’re not technical. They don’t understand how it works.”

The CA lads then boasted about the Trump campaign trick of spending funds raised legally for “persuasion and mobilisation” while “affiliated” groups created and run by Trump operatives paid for “the negative attack ads”. Under US law none of these Brits were allowed to do any of this, and those affiliated groups they ran for Trump are allowed to spend unlimited money, but not if they coordinate their campaigns with the politicians (The US Supreme Court thought this “arms-length” rule would work because political people would honour the law.)

Cambridge Analytica will probably be crucified in a US court as a lesson to dishonourable political operators, and the politicians and their billionaire operators will walk free. As CA’s ex-boss Nix says so insouciantly on the tape, “the candidate … is never involved. He’s told what to do by the campaign team.” Reporter: “Does that mean the candidate is just a puppet?” Nix: “Always.” Mr Nix was “suspended” the day after this amusing tape debuted.

The billionaire who saved the Trump campaign when it was falling apart in July 2016 was Robert Mercer, an obscenely successful hedge-fund charmer. He brought CA and its co-founder Stephen Bannon to the Trump campaign, but since Trump fired Bannon last August the Breitbart brat’s been blabbing.

Late last week he said the whole CA thing is bullshit—their technology was more smoke than fire. During the Trump election, he and a whistleblower now claim the simple technique of bombing Facebook with ads promoting various nasty policies like banning Muslims, dissing LGBTs, and hating Mexicans and liberals, allowed them to harvest as many voter profiles, with more specificity about their prejudices, than CA ever compiled with their algorithms.

So, upcoming elections here there and everywhere will use social media to feed sugar-coated poison to countless millions of hapless thumb-tappers – unless outrage in Washington and Europe inspires new laws against social media selling our data. The mere thought of that wiped $37 billion off Facebook’s value last week.

Mark Zuckerberg still has shares worth $70 billion and still has to learn that in politics the stakes include life and death on a global scale. His offer to regulate his Facebook business is insurance against massive fines and an assurance that a bad Facebook doesn’t kill his own dream of being elected President.

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