This week everyone’s been talking about the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal with regard to the Trump campaign.

I wrote about it the other day but with the intention of pointing out how many of us are leaving our data open to manipulation by third parties.

Of course, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is only a big deal because it is connected to then-candidate Donald Trump, a Republican.

The much larger scandal involves Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, when Facebook was perfectly happy to let Democrats mine their users’ data.

Former Obama for America manager speaks

On Sunday, March 18, 2018, Carol Davidsen, former director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, tweeted about an IT project used in his 2012 re-election campaign, Taargus:

And this:

Carol Davidsen received many interesting responses, including these:

Incidentally, other third parties have also tapped into social media data:

Looking at Obama’s re-election campaign, on March 19, IJR.com posted two articles about Ms Davidsen, ‘Ex-Obama Campaign Director Drops Bombshell Claim on Facebook: ‘They Were on Our Side’ and ‘Ex-Obama Campaign Director: It’s ‘Unfair’ Facebook Let Us ‘Ingest Entire Social Network of US’.

Wow, that’s quite an admission to make.

The first article displays her tweets (posted above) as well as these two:

Davidson tweeted that ‘the other side’ are at it, too.

Yes, but probably not to the extent that the Democrats have been.

The second IJR.com article refers to a 2015 video of a 23-minute talk Davidsen gave that year about Big Data, a term she herself uses, and how such information is analysed:

Because she has been working with Big Data for so many years, it is easy for her to be blasé and say that the average social media user has nothing to worry about. She did, in fact, say that such information could be misused, but she did not think it had been to date.

The problem I have with her reasoning is that, by the time data are being misused, we will be so accustomed to being analysed by third parties, we won’t even care. Therein lies the danger.

She also discussed buying advertising near the end. That part went over my head a bit, but a 2012 article in Time, ‘Obama Wins: How Chicago’s Data-Driven Campaign Triumphed’, explains what his campaign manager, Jim Messina, did (emphases mine):

Data helped drive the campaign’s ad buying too. Rather than rely on outside media consultants to decide where ads should run, Messina based his purchases on the massive internal data sets. “We were able to put our target voters through some really complicated modeling, to say, O.K., if Miami-Dade women under 35 are the targets, [here is] how to reach them,” said one official. As a result, the campaign bought ads to air during unconventional programming, like Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, skirting the traditional route of buying ads next to local news programming. How much more efficient was the Obama campaign of 2012 than 2008 at ad buying? Chicago has a number for that: “On TV we were able to buy 14% more efficiently … to make sure we were talking to our persuadable voters,” the same official said.

Obama campaign’s use of Big Data in 2012

The link Davidsen tweeted to (see above) is for a November 20, 2012 Time article explaining how Obama won his re-election thanks to Big Data from social media: ‘Friended: How the Obama Campaign Connected with Young Voters’.

This is the campaign on which that Davidsen worked.

A few weeks before Election Day, Obama’s people wanted to get phone numbers for younger potential voters. Most of these men and women had mobile phones but no land line:

For a campaign dependent on a big youth turnout, this could have been a crisis. But 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.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with that until:

the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists.

Did their Facebook friends know that? Unlikely.

It was a resounding success:

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.

This is concerning because it could be abused in future:

A geek squad in Chicago created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter.

Big Data can change behaviour:

A study of 61 million people on Facebook during the 2010 midterms found that people who saw photos of their friends voting on Election Day were more likely to cast a ballot themselves. “It is much more effective to stimulate these real-world ties,” says James Fowler, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, who co-authored the study.

Conclusion

The Time articles are very upbeat: Obama’s people are geniuses for using Big Data to win.

Four years later, a Republican wins the presidency with a sophisticated use of social media information. The world condemns this because Republicans were involved.

Only the Left can play.

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