A top-10 worst feeling in the world is learning that you’ve been manipulated.
Most people either believe themselves too sharp and savvy to be fooled, or they believe in the inherent goodness of others. Getting tricked, though, instantly and unambiguously obliterates both notions. This feels terrible. It feels so bad, in fact, that some people’s gut reaction upon learning they’ve been fooled is to convince themselves that, actually, they weren’t fooled, thank you very much; there’s been a mistake, you must be thinking of someone else.
This is the reason very few people would willingly admit that the ads, articles, and videos that Cambridge Analytica created for Facebook in 2016 had any impact on the way they voted that year.
By now, it should be rather obvious that there is no one explanation for how the last presidential election turned out. Russians didn’t engineer Trump’s presidency. Neither did Jill Stein. It wasn’t the 11th-hour Comey intervention, nor was it those steady Wikileaks info dumps with stolen DNC emails. It was all of those things, crashing together in a perfect storm, along with Clinton’s unforced errors and a multitude of other factors.
Each of these explanations gives people another reason not to explore the possibility that their social media habits had anything to do with the outcome. Netflix’s new documentary, The Great Hack, however, makes a convincing case that the data collected through social media was used to manipulate us on the very same platforms—and that it could happen again in 2020.
One lesson that came out of 2016 is that it’s actually important to read whole articles rather than skimming a percentage of them beyond the headline.
Personally, I failed to heed this lesson when it came to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
I knew the Cliff’s Notes version: Cambridge Analytica, a company that uses data somehow, is Bad! It harvested the data of 87 million people from Facebook, and did something with it—something involving ads, maybe? It’s definitely Bad, though!
The threat of data mining was never compelling enough to make me read the fine print, mostly out of the nihilistic, but possibly pragmatic, assumption that every company is stealing my data all the time, so who cares?
The Great Hack, which debuts on Netflix today, though, makes an airtight case for why everyone should care. Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, the film documents the fall of data-driven “behavior change agents” Cambridge Analytica, the events that led up to the scandal, and what might come next.
The focus is primarily on three principal characters: professor and digital rights advocate David Carroll, who attempts litigation to recover his stolen data from Cambridge; Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who was the target of much online harassment for her role in uncovering the story; and former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, whose testimony may have proven more consequential than pink-haired whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, who was lower on the corporate food chain than Kaiser.
“How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?” the narrator asks, near the beginning. The rest of the film then ably works toward answering the question. For some viewers, The Great Hack may merely serve as a refresher course on all the in-depth reporting they’ve already consumed about Facebook and Cambridge Analaytica and the 2016 election. Congratulations to those people!
For everyone else, though, here are some of the most mind-blowing revelations that I, a bit of a dummy about data harvesting, learned from watching the film.
- Recently, data apparently surpassed oil as the most valuable resource on earth.
- Cambridge Analytica appealed to clients by claiming it could provide 5,000 data points on every American voter.
- The company harvested this data from Facebook users mainly through personality quizzes based on tried-and-true psychological research, including the OCEAN score, which is comprised of five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
- Users who took Cambridge Analytica’s quizzes weren’t the only ones who handed over their data, though. When users took the quizzes, they inadvertently allowed Cambridge Analytica to scrape data from their entire friend network.
- The first time Cambridge Analytica, which was cofounded by Steve Bannon, met with Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, it was inside the Trump Tower set of The Apprentice.
- Cambridge Analytica worked on Ted Cruz’s campaign for 14 months, driving him to the brink of the nomination, before successfully pitching Team Trump. When the company moved on to that campaign, it took that 14 months’ worth of data with them.
- Project Alamo, the digital arm of Trump’s campaign was, at its peak, spending $1 million a day on Facebook ads. Trump digital media director Brad Parscale claimed to have run 5.9 million visual ads on Facebook compared with Clinton’s 66,000. Parscale is Trump’s campaign manager in 2020.
- Although Cambridge Analytica targeted all American voters on Facebook, the company was primarily interested in a group it called The Persuadables, people whose minds, according to the data, could be changed. The company micro-targeted these people, especially in swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, sometimes breaking down the state into targetable precincts. The company then made personalized creative with which they proceeded to carpet bomb Persuadables from every platform including blogs and videos, “until they saw the world the way we wanted them to see it.”
- Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL was performing political and military propaganda operations long before establishing Cambridge in 2012 in order to enter U.S. political elections. Most notably, perhaps, the company allegedly carried out an operation in Trinidad and Tobago convincing young voters it was fashionable to not vote, knowing it would depress one side more than the other.
- Although Facebook eventually asked the clients it had shared user data with to delete the data, Cambridge Analytica later claimed to discover it still had “Facebook-like data” in its modeling.
- Brittany Kaiser told parliament that the Target Audience Analysis (TAA) that Cambridge Analytica allegedly offered to the Leave.EU movement was considered a “weapons-grade communications tactic.”
- Once all the exposure put Cambridge Analytica on the defensive, it spoke with several PR crisis firms. All of them turned the now-defunct company down.