How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections

Photo by paz.ca | CC BY 2.0

In the days and weeks following the 2016 presidential elections, reports surfaced about how a small British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, might have played a pivotal role in Donald Trump’s surprise victory. The company claimed to have formulated algorithms to influence American voters using individually targeted political advertisements. It reportedly generated personality profiles of millions of individual citizens by collecting up to 5000 data points on each person. Then Cambridge Analytica used these “psychographic” tools to send voters carefully crafted online messages about candidates or hot-button political issues.

Although political consultants have long used “microtargeting” techniques for zeroing in on particular ethnic, religious, age, or income groups, Cambridge Analytica’s approach is unusual: The company relies upon individuals’ personal data that is harvested from social media apps like Facebook. In the US, such activities are entirely legal. Some described Cambridge Analytica’s tools as “mind-reading software” and a “weaponized AI [artificial intelligence] propaganda machine.” However, corporate media outlets such as CNN and the Wall Street Journal often portrayed the company in glowing terms.

Cambridge Analytica is once again in the headlines–but under somewhat different circumstances. Late last week, whistleblower Christopher Wylie went public, explaining how he played an…

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