Business Technology

Monday 24 June 2019

Breach of trust: How the world woke up to the hazards of sharing data on Facebook

Campaigners are now using detailed psychological profiles of voters to sway elections. Is it a step too far?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the shadowy world of online political campaigning uncovered this week, it was hard to know what was real and what was pure make-believe.

Could online political consultants dig deep into our souls using information gathered through social media, and use their knowledge to influence our voting behaviour?

Could they gauge our political mood by our food preferences, or whether we like a particular brand of motorcycle?

Facebook found itself plunged into controversy as news broke that a political consultancy that allegedly used highly dubious methods had harvested up to 50 million Facebook profiles of users.

Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix
Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix

By gathering information about the users, including their likes, Cambridge Analytica boasted that it could build elaborate psychological profiles, and these could be used to sway elections.

As a whistleblower employed to work on the project put it, they built models to exploit what they knew about the voters - and targeted their "inner demons".

By hoovering up as much personal information as possible, they could play on emotions, and send voters the right political messages.

The colourful upper-crust boss of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, described this approach to campaigning as a "secret sauce".

But revelations on Channel 4 News about the skulduggery employed by the company - including promising to use 'beautiful' Ukrainian women to entrap politicians and a panoply of other dirty tricks - led to Nix's suspension.

More significantly, it led to concerns about how Facebook handles the personal information which it gathers and profits from. The bad publicity caused the company's value to collapse by €50bn on share markets this week.

Mark Zuckerberg: the Facebook founder has admitted he made mistakes in handling personal information. Photo: PA
Mark Zuckerberg: the Facebook founder has admitted he made mistakes in handling personal information. Photo: PA

It is also likely to prompt questions about whether intrusive "micro- targeting" techniques of campaigning should be allowed here in referendums and elections.

Just under three million people in Ireland have a Facebook account, and two-thirds of these users log on daily. It is sobering to note that as many people go on Facebook every day as voted in the last general election.

For many, it has become an indispensable, if occasionally annoying, way of keeping in touch with friends and family.

But many of these users may not realise that Facebook is perhaps the most effective mass surveillance tool ever invented, containing infinitely more personal information than the CIA or the KGB could ever dream of. It is all free for users, but as at least one observer remarked this week, when you get a service free online, you become the product, there to be hawked to advertisers.

Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to refine personal information gleaned from Facebook in their work as political consultants.

Daragh O'Brien, a data privacy specialist with Castlebridge Associates, says: "They have successfully taken a tool and platform for efficiently selling nappies and beer and have turned it into a weapon for allegedly influencing elections."

Executives from Cambridge Analytica told an undercover reporter posing as a fixer for a Sri Lankan politician how they had worked in more than 200 elections across the world including Nigeria, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina.

They said they used data from social media to play on voters' fears during campaign, and they took credit for helping to elect Donald Trump.

One of the executives, Mark Turnbull, said: "Our job is to drop the bucket farther down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really, deep-seated underlying fears, concerns."

There is nothing new about targeting specific groups of voters through ads on Facebook or other social media.

In 2012, Barack Obama used micro-targeting to send messages to potential voters by building up an elaborate database of supporters and their Facebook friends. With the consent of supporters, they targeted the social media friends, trying to persuade them to come out to vote.

Although their effectiveness is unknown, Irish candidates and organisations now use promoted ads on Facebook targeted at specific groups in elections and referendums.

Both sides in the upcoming abortion referendum campaign are paying for promoted posts on Facebook, sometimes targeting specific groups. Craig Dwyer, the social media manager for the Yes side in the marriage equality referendum, said: "Micro-targeting on social media is not a new phenomenon at all, but people have mostly seen it in ads for things like socks and flights.

"I think we are just becoming educated about its use in political campaigns."

A number of candidates used promoted Facebook messages at the last general election, and saw it as a relatively cheap way of reaching constituents.

For example, a message costing just €10 could reach 7,000 voters on Facebook.

"These ads mostly use top-line demographics such as age, gender and location, but you can do it on the basis of interests as well," says Dwyer.

"For example you could target a Facebook post at men over the age of 30 in a certain town who are interested in the GAA. The interests are based on the pages they visited on Facebook."

The problem with these targeted ads is that they are unregulated, and on issues such as the current referendum they can be targeted at voters by campaign groups from outside the country.

If a campaign group puts up a traditional poster or sends out a leaflet during the referendum campaign, they have to declare the source of the literature. But on some of the online ads for the abortion campaign, it is impossible to find out where they are coming from. There is nothing to stop a rich foreign supporter of either side spending a fortune on online advertising in the hope of swaying the result.

Jack Murray, chief executive of the public relations company Media HQ, says the ethical and moral questions of gathering private information become deeper when the data is gathered in different contexts, and pieced together.

"People can give out personal information in one context and then give out other information in another. When you add it all together, it is like two and two equals five.

"Adding all this information together can reveal so much more about you," says Murray. "Piece by piece, Lego brick by Lego brick, they form a profile of you."

Some of the revelations about how Cambridge Analytica gathered information, revealed in The Observer and on Channel 4 this week, seemed like passages from a futuristic science fiction novel. The data was originally collected by getting 257,000 people to sign up for a personality test through an app called This is Your Digital Life, built by Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan.

Through Kogan's company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test - and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.

More significantly, the app also successfully collected the information of the test-takers' Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a personal information about 50 million US voters.

Facebook said this week the use of the information was unauthorised.

Responding to the crisis on Wednesday night in an interview with CNN, Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company had made mistakes and outlined how it has changed its policies to make sure that user data is protected.

"I wish we'd taken those steps earlier," Zuckerberg told CNN. "That... is probably the biggest mistake that we made here."

On the face of it, the algorithm used by Cambridge Analytica to build psychological profiles seems like pure mumbo jumbo, and many marketing specialists are sceptical about whether it would really work.

According to The Observer, the newspaper which broke many of the details of the story, the algorithm trawls through the "likes" of users as they browse the site - to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.

It is reported that just a few dozen "likes" can give an indication of which way a user will vote, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman.

It could even offer clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse.

The profiling used by Cambridge Analytica, and possibly other online micro-targeters, seems to rely on psychological research carried out at Cambridge University into what Facebook likes reveal about a personality.

If a user expressed a 'like' for curly fries, for example, then the researchers found there was a high chance that they had a high IQ.

High intelligence is also indicated by liking thunderstorms and the works of Mozart, while less intelligent people are said to like Harley-Davidson motorbikes and the Facebook group called 'I Love Being a Mom'.

People from broken homes tend to 'like' overtly emotional expressions, such as 'I'm sorry, I love you', according to the research.

Trump campaign

It is one thing gathering up all this information. But political analysts may debate whether these personality tests are accurate, and whether they can be translated easily into votes.

Do they work better than old-fashioned techniques, such as door-to-door canvasses, where candidates can respond to individual concern in person?

Donald Trump's campaign hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016 and paid it more than $6.2m, according to US Federal Election Commission records.

On its website, Cambridge Analytica says it "provided the Donald J Trump for President campaign with the expertise and insights that helped win the White House".

Alexander Nix, the boss of Cambridge Analytica, made some extravagant boasts, as he was filmed talking to the undercover reporter from Channel 4, including taking credit for the successful Trump campaign.

"We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy," Nix said.

The company was filmed claiming that as well as sending out positive messages about Trump, it could use proxies to send out negative material on rivals.

"We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow…." one executive boasted. "And so this stuff infiltrates the online community, and expands but with no branding, so it's unattributable, untrackable."

According to some accounts, the marketing gurus from Cambridge Analytica exaggerated their role in Trump's success as they sought other business around the world

Brad Parscale, who ran Trump's digital ad operation in 2016, has said in interviews Cambridge Analytica played a minor role in the 2016 campaign.

Jack Murray of Media HQ says: "It is almost immaterial whether this kind of campaigning actually works or not. We should still be concerned that there are people out there harvesting huge tranches of data and putting together jigsaws on every voter."

The controversy has not only raised the issue of the dark arts of political campaigning, but data security specialist Daragh O'Brien believes it could cause a shift in attitude to the social-media world.

"People are asking piercing questions about the information society we want to live in," says O'Brien. "Facebook has seen people as a means to an end - to create a phenomenally powerful advertising engine. People are rightly asking - is that we want?"

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