The Morning Jolt


Is Cambridge Analytica Really an ‘Information Weapon’ in a ‘Data War’?

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Assuming all the reporting is accurate, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data that was supposed to be off-limits to it. The firm allegedly paid Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan to collect the data on Facebook users and claim it was being used for academic purposes; in reality, Kogan collected and passed along 50 million individual profiles that “could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyze individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behavior.”

No doubt, this is a breach of contract. No doubt, this is unethical. This is going to generate slews of lawsuits.

But does this really constitute manipulating the election, or a form of “data war” or a new “information weapon”? How is this significantly different from any other form of campaign messaging?

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower at the center of these stories, really makes it sound like mind control: “Cambridge Analytica will try to pick at whatever mental weakness or vulnerability that we think you have and try to warp your perception of what’s real around you.”

Guys . . . it’s Facebook, not a Hypno-Ray or Loki’s staff. At the heart of this is the question of whether a Facebook ad or any kind of clever advertising can get you to do something you otherwise would not do. Sure, an image of delicious food can make you hungry, but does it make you go to the restaurant and eat? Does the car commercial showing the guy driving fast through an empty road in the wilderness make you buy the car? Or does it just persuade you that enjoying that experience is worth the cost of the car?

I’ll put it to my generally right-of-center audience: Do you think there’s some sort of manipulative social-media messaging that could persuade you to vote for, say, Nancy Pelosi?

A common answer is probably, “Well, I’m immune to the manipulative effects of advertising, but a lot of other people are more easily persuaded.” If you really think a decisive portion of the electorate can be easily manipulated into voting for a candidate by slick advertising . . . can there really be such a thing as a free and fair election? (This is how the term “sheeple” gets thrown around.) The subtext of the accusations around Cambridge Analytica is that for a significant portion of Americans, voting for Hillary Clinton was the “rational” choice and some sort of sinister advertising manipulated them into making the “irrational” choice of voting for Donald Trump.

Vox writes, “Cambridge Analytica was also able to use this real-time information to determine which messages were resonating where and then shape Trump’s travel schedule around it. So, if there was a spike in clicks on an article about immigration in a county in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, Trump would go there and give an immigration-focused speech.”

Okay, except Trump gave immigration-focused speeches his entire campaign — at least to the extent they “focused” on anything. (Haven’t these people watched Trump’s speeches? They’re usually off-the-cuff stream-of-consciousness riffs on whatever he saw on Fox News and Twitter that day.) Did someone really need reams of data from Facebook to conclude that blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin would be worried about globalization, job security, and competition from underpriced foreign labor?

Campaigns have gathered consumer-research data and used it to target voters for decades. This is how you end up with those odd little factoids like, “Democrats are likely to prefer clearer spirits, like vodka or gin, while Republicans are tend to favor brown liquors, like bourbon or scotch.” Companies keep track of their customers, what they buy, how much they spend, and where they live, to help with future marketing efforts. Most of them are perfectly happy to sell that information to anyone willing to buy it.

To use an obvious example, assume you’re running a campaign for a pro–Second Amendment candidate in Pennsylvania. You would go to Guns & Ammo and every gun-related publication that is sold in the state, and offer to purchase a list of their subscribers and mailing addresses in the state. Then you would start sending campaign literature touting your candidate’s commitment to gun rights to those addresses.

Honest to goodness, folks, this was considered groundbreaking 14 years ago:

Republican firms, including TargetPoint Consultants and National Media Inc., delved into commercial databases that pinpointed consumer buying patterns and television-watching habits to unearth such information as Coors beer and bourbon drinkers skewing Republican, brandy and cognac drinkers tilting Democratic; college football TV viewers were more Republican than those who watch professional football; viewers of Fox News were overwhelmingly committed to vote for Bush; homes with telephone caller ID tended to be Republican; people interested in gambling, fashion and theater tended to be Democratic.

Surveys of people on these consumer data lists were then used to determine “anger points” (late-term abortion, trial lawyer fees, estate taxes) that coincided with the Bush agenda for as many as 32 categories of voters, each identifiable by income, magazine subscriptions, favorite television shows and other “flags.” Merging this data, in turn, enabled those running direct mail, precinct walking and phone bank programs to target each voter with a tailored message.

“You used to get a tape-recorded voice of Ronald Reagan telling you how important it was to vote. That was our get-out-the-vote effort,” said Alex Gage, of TargetPoint. Now, he said, calls can be targeted to specific constituencies so that, for example, a “right to life voter” could get a call warning that “if you don’t come out and vote, the number of abortions next year is going to go up.”

You know who else focused on using Facebook and “targeted sharing” and created models from data sets to specifically target different groups of voters? The 2012 Obama campaign!

The Obama team had a solution in place: a Facebook application that will transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future. For supporters, the app appeared to be just another way to digitally connect to the campaign. But to the Windy City number crunchers, it was a game changer. “I think this will wind up being the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for this campaign,” says Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director.

That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” says Goff. “Who do they trust? Their friends.”

The campaign called this effort targeted sharing. And in those final weeks of the campaign, the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button. More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind.

A geek squad in Chicago created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter. “We are not just sending you a banner ad,” explains Dan Wagner, the Obama campaign’s 29-year-old head of analytics, who helped oversee the project. “We are giving you relevant information from your friends.”

The difference is that the Obama campaign persuaded people to use a particular app to reach out to their friends and they consented to the terms of the agreement, while Cambridge Analytica allegedly used data that was obtained fraudulently. If it comes to that, prosecute them for fraud for claiming the data was for academic research when it was being used for private campaign messaging purposes. But let’s not let the voters off the hook for their choices at the ballot box.

After all, it’s not like advertising can make us start doing things we otherwise would never do and say things we otherwise would never say, with just a snap, crackle, pop. We all think different. Ignore the fearmongering and know that you’re in good hands. It’s not like some powerful social-media company can just reach out and touch someone, or just do it. You can have it your way. Because you’re worth it!

Those Unmotivated Trump Voters

Remember during the Obama years, when Democrats fumed that they had a lot of casual supporters who loved the president but who otherwise tuned out politics and wouldn’t show up in non-presidential years?

It’s starting to feel like the circumstances are now reversed:

Sixty percent of Democratic voters say they have a high degree of interest in the upcoming elections (registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale), versus 54 percent of Republicans who say the same thing. In addition, 64 percent of 2016 Clinton voters say they have a high level of interest, compared with 57 percent of 2016 Trump voters.

Is it worthwhile to cater to a portion of the electorate that only shows up to vote once every four years?

Meanwhile, in Austin . . .

Doesn’t it seem like the Austin bombings should be a bigger deal in national news coverage? “Police told residents of a neighborhood in southwest Austin to stay at home until 10 a.m. Monday after the fourth explosion in less than a month hit Texas’ capital, injuring two men.”

ADDENDA: Love the Jets trade this weekend. After decades of mostly-disappointing football, I’ve concluded that a team can almost never win consistently without a top-tier quarterback. (Philadelphia Eagles fans might argue that a team needs two.)

Finding Tom Brady in the fourth round is one of those one-in-a-billion shots. Quarterbacks picked in the second through seventh rounds tend to have lower ceilings and sometimes extremely low floors (COUGHchristianhackenbergCOUGH). A big chunk of the game’s top quarterbacks were selected at or near the top of the first round: Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Phil Rivers. (Alex Smith was picked first overall, although he took a long road to excellence. Ben Roethlisberger was selected eleventh; Aaron Rodgers was picked 24th, Russell Wilson was selected in the third round.)

No, there are no guarantees, but a team has a better shot with one of the highly-touted guys coming out than they do with a pick in the second round or later. If you see a quarterback you like, move up and get him and roll the dice.

(From where I sit, I’d prefer Josh Rosen, then Baker Mayfield, then Sam Darnold, although I don’t think there’s that wide a gap among them. Josh Allen worries me with his accuracy issues. Lamar Jackson will probably make some team really happy for a few seasons, but I worry about his long-term durability with all the running he does.)


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