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How a data analytics firm allegedly ‘weaponized’ Facebook to swing votes in 2016

On Friday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, a UK-headquartered data analytics firm, for allegedly using user data to devise election advertising strategy, particularly for undecided voters, in the run-up to the 2016 election. The U.S. arm of the firm reportedly received information on 50 million American voters from Facebook without disclosing its intentions to the social media giant. Molly Wood, host of Marketplace Tech, joins Megan Thompson for more.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    We turn now to new allegations about a data firm tied to President Trump’s 2016 presidential election. The firm is called Cambridge Analytica and on Friday, Facebook suspended its parent company. The reason given by Facebook, it said Cambridge Analytica lied when it said it had deleted information about several hundred thousand users. But multiple reports including an investigation by Channel 4 in the UK suggest that the scope of what happened here is far broader. A former research director for Cambridge Analytica has come forward to say that the firm harvested data from more than 50 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica denies that it violated Facebook’s rules and says it legally uses the data it collects to create detailed profiles that are then sold to third parties. For more on this complicated story I’m joined via Skype by Molly Wood, host of Marketplace Tech on public radio. So what is Cambridge Analytica? what do they do?

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    You know, Cambridge Analytica, it may not be a surprise to find out is a data analysis firm. They gather as much data as they can from various sources and they use that data to offer consulting in terms of advertising strategies other kinds of sort of targeting strategies and they primarily focus on election research.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So what exactly have they been accused of doing.? Walk us through it.

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    Cambridge Analytica, it’s the U.S. offshoot of a U.K. company that was trying to do this sort of election based data gathering and analysis and they would consult with various campaigns to offer advice on how best to reach particularly undecided voters. You know, in order to pull this off they needed a lot of data quickly and it can be very expensive and difficult to get that information. So they, like so many other data brokers, turned to Facebook around 2014 and got a lot of users to install an app that was a quiz app. So you know this is actually pretty common behavior on Facebook. You’ll see some kind of a quiz your friends are sharing it. It pops up in your News Feed and in order to take it you have to install a little app and it pops up a screen that says you know this app will gather your public profile information and your list of friends and it sounds pretty innocuous. Cambridge Analytica went to Facebook and said we’re conducting academic research with this app. Facebook apparently said O.K. and didn’t do a lot of diligence and through that, because they were able to get sort of the direct access from the people who installed the quiz app and then gather all the information from the friends of the people that had installed the app and that includes likes, you know their various posts, the pages that they subscribe to, just a ton of information. They were able to gather really detailed profile information on 50 million Americans.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So then what did they then do with all that information?

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    So then what that information does is let a company go to a campaign and say, this is how you should target these users. These are the kinds of digital ad strategies that you should use, these are the ads you should buy, this is the language that you should use. And you know, I mean they refer to it themselves as sort of psychological warfare, the way that they employ the messages is really emotional manipulation because they have such detailed information it’s not necessarily who you are and where you live and who you’re friends with although it is also all of that. It’s how receptive you are to certain kinds of messages – whether you go to church, whether you’re conservative leaning or liberal leaning. Very, very detailed sort of behavioral analysis and then they can target things very directly to what feels like just, you know, messages that are really effective in terms of manipulating your emotions.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    I want to ask about how this is different from what a lot of us have just kind of come to expect. I mean we know that Facebook collects a lot of data. We know that it’s sharing some of it. We’re used to seeing targeted ads. So how is this different?

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    They’re operating on a much higher level in terms of sort of weaponizing the data that they collect using it. And this really efficient way that it’s not about getting you to buy something. It’s about getting you to potentially change your vote or stay home and not vote or vote based on an issue that you maybe didn’t realize you cared so much about. And it really is based on this idea that your emotions that you’re sort of psychology is up for grabs if someone has enough data and they use it properly.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    How has Facebook responded to all of this?

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    Facebook has responded in a way that we’re sort of getting used to from Facebook, which is the first to sort of significantly downplay their role and then eventually acknowledge that that something’s happened and what they have done in the short term is bad. These researchers and this company from being able to access service they banned these researchers from Facebook. They’ve also said that they’re going to try to track and delete this data which I have to say is extremely unlikely. You know, the data is probably already been resold or repackaged at this point and they don’t necessarily know who has it anymore. So their response has been pretty muted. And in fact you know one of the researchers who was working on the U.K. arm of this company now works at Facebook so it’s very likely, frankly, that Facebook is itself trying to replicate some of these techniques with respect to advertising.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    All right. Marketplace Tech’s Molly Wood. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • MOLLY WOOD:

    My pleasure.

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