What The Data Said

Hello Kitty fans vote liberal. Neurotics are conservative.

Those are the findings of psychometric profiles harvested from up to 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, a British electioneering company. It ain’t rocket science – yet.

As regulators in Washington and Westminster investigate the influence of social media giants, Cambridge Analytica closed down in the heat of scandal. In mitigation, Facebook added a new “Clear History” function to erase users’ personal data.

From the unfolding controversy, Four Schools of Thought emerged on the likely impact of micro-targeting online content to psychographic profiles on social media.

1. “The SMERSH of the digital world”

Listen to the boasting about “data-driven behavior change,” said Paul Farrelly, a British Labour MP on the UK parliamentary select committee on Culture, Media and Sport. and Cambridge Analytica (CA) sounds “like the SMERSH of the Digital World!”

SMERSH is the fictional counter-intelligence agency in Ian Fleming’s early James Bond novels, modelled on the KGB in the former Soviet Union. Its acronym – derived from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet – stands for Special Methods of Spy Detection, such as sending operatives to kill Bond and subvert western power.

Which sounded all too plausible to Hillary Clinton, given the interference of online bots in support of Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign: “How did the Russians know to target their messages so precisely?” asked Hillary.

2. “What they tried to sell is magic”

Facebook’s own tools for advertisers are far more sophisticated than anything from Cambridge Analytica, according to Aleksandr Kogan, a data scientist who harvested the Facebook profiles.

“They’ve made claims that this is incredibly accurate and it tells you everything there is to tell about you. But I think the reality is it’s not that.”

An academic at Cambridge University, Kogan was subcontracted by CA’s parent company to build This Is Your Digital Life, an app which predicted personality types – in exchange for users’ data (and some from their Facebook friends).

Kogan’s app detected traits such as ‘Extraversion’, ‘Neuroticism’ and ‘Belief in Star Signs’ – hence the voting preferences of Hello Kitty fans. The Facebook Ads platform tools “provide companies a far more effective pathway to target people based on their personalities than using scores from users from our work,” Kogan told a UK parliamentary committee on culture, media and sport.

3. “That’s how Trump won the election”

Not surprisingly, CA has a higher estimation of its work. Undercover filming by Channel 4 shows CA’s chief data officer, Mark Taylor, claiming credit for President Trump’s victory in the US Electoral College:

“That’s down to the data and the research. If you did your rallies in the right locations, you moved more people out in those key swing states on Election Day, that’s how he won the election.”

Taylor’s comments were made during what he believed was a pitch to prospective clients, who turned out to be undercover reporters. CA dismissed what it calls “conspiracy theories” and denied breaking the law.

More plausibly, Trump campaign aides Jared Kushner and Brad Parscale reportedly tested CA’s findings. They found existing Republican National Committee data “to be vastly more accurate,” reported CBS News.

4. “Every intimate detail of your life”

On the balance of evidence to date, it seems unlikely that micro-targeting of online content actually changed voters’ beliefs in any significant proportions.

But micro-targeting does reinforce convictions, and may motivate voters to overcome apathy or inertia. And it doesn’t have to be true – Fake News can be more effective.

EU security commissioner Julian King has asked social media companies to produce “short-term, concrete” plans to combat Fake News before elections to the European Parliament in 2019. While social media giants would prefer to initiate self-regulation, Apple CEO Tim Cook took a tougher line:

“This certain situation is so dire, and has become so large, that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary,” Cook told a tech conference in China.

“The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike, and every intimate detail of your life – from my point of view, it shouldn’t exist.”

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