How Trump used Facebook to vault himself into office
People love Facebook quizzes. Figuring out a little more about yourself and what your personality is like just by clicking a few simple buttons is a very satisfying way to pass the time for millions of Facebook users. However, anyone who has completed one of these quizzes may have played a role in the election upset that allowed Donald Trump to become president.
The Trump campaign hired the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which has been working for several years to build psychological profiles of nearly 230 million adult Americans through their Facebook accounts. The firm is an offshoot of SCL Group, a British behavioral research consulting company, which has performed counterterrorism “psy ops” work in Afghanistan.
Cambridge Analytica has formed their own psychological operation by inundating Facebook with personality quizzes. Hundreds of thousands of respondents — mostly young women, but varying enough to develop a wide ranging view of behavior and demographics — have given Cambridge Analytica a look at their “Ocean scores,” which rates a person based on the psychological traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Furthermore, thanks to Facebook, Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at respondents’ profiles and real names.
Cambridge Analytica earned itself a number of high-profile contracts leading up to its partnership with Trump. The firm worked on behalf of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the Republican primaries, using his personal campaign app to mine personal information from everyone who downloaded it. This allowed for the creation of psychological profiles of each voter that, according to the Associated Press, were formed with “uncanny accuracy.” They also aided the “Leave” campaign of Brexit, that ultimately succeeded through a UK referendum.
According to Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, the firm has “4,000–5,000 data points”, or pieces of information, on every single adult in the U.S. These bits of information can be age, gender, religion and ethnicity, as well as what magazines one buys, what television show someone watches, what food someone eat, what cars anyone drives and more. Cambridge Analytica has also put all this data up for sale, selling it for unknown quantities of money. The business operates on the assumption that people who buy the same items and have similar items — “the same ‘data points’” — likely have similar personalities. From there, one’s personality will help predict what you might buy or who you might vote for. “Behavior is driven by personality,” Nix has said.
The leadership of Cambridge Analytica has already found a home in the White House. Steve Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart News and current Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to President Trump, sits on the board of Cambridge Analytica. It is also widely believed that hedge fund manager Robert Mercer has provided huge amounts of money to the firm, as he has previously to Breitbart and Trump’s campaign. It is believed that Mercer’s contributions played a major role in earning Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, places within the Trump administration. With an enormous security and surveillance apparatus now in Trump’s hands, it isn’t hard to imagine that Cambridge Analytica’s knowledge of what we all are like, down to the most minute details, will grow.
This will certainly continue as the U.S. does not have European-style restrictions on second- or thirdhand use of our data, and because our freedom-of-information laws give data brokers broad access to the intimate records kept by local and state governments, our lives are open books even without social media or personality quizzes.
Since the concept of “direct marketing” was conceived in the 1960s, which encouraged advertisers to target specific consumers with ads tailored to them, every advertiser has sought to improve upon the formula. The 21st century and the information age has only served to improve the efficiency with which individually targeted digital ads can be tested and matched to our personalities. As a result, Facebook has become a powerful tool for advertisers.
The latest manifestation of this is a “dark post,” a post that no one can see apart from the users being targeted. Cambridge Analytica used dark posts to aid Trump’s digital team, sending specialized ads to different potential voters, hoping to sway them according to their psychological profiles.
In this most recent election, dark posts were apparently used to try to suppress black voters. According to reports, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. Trump’s ad strategy also targeted the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami with ads about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The laws regarding Facebook advertising are vague at best, but applying them to posts that no one else can see will prove to be a tricky and potentially impossible task without new legislation.
Trump was widely mocked during the campaign for ignoring the traditional media outlets when picking his advertising, while Clinton spent more $140 million on television spots alone. Instead, the Trump campaign focused on social media. On one day in August, his marketing team inundated Facebook with 100,000 ad variations, which, as the New York Times has pointed out, can easily be assumed to be more ads than could be approved for meeting Facebook’s “community standards.”
Trump’s ability to win the election was reliant upon a number of enormous factors, but the role Facebook played in his win cannot be overstated. They fed the data the campaign needed to properly target potential voters.
Major social networks and tech sites have made proclamations to eliminate “fake news” from advertising on their sites. But this will not keep such articles off of one’s newsfeed or affect how advertisers can target users through dark posts.
Mark Zuckerberg has embarked a cross-country speaking tour, speaking to citizens of every state. This behavior has many wondering if Zuckerberg will be taking a stab at the presidency in 2020 or 2024.
But if Zuckerberg makes a play to be head of state, citizens of this country must reckon with the fact that he has not just created an influential social media network, but an easily weaponized advertising medium that anyone can (especially Zuckerberg) can widely manipulate.
Considering the cadre of Cambridge Analytica players active in Trump’s administration, it seems unlikely that this type of personal data collection will cease anytime soon. If Zuckerberg really wants to win over the hearts and minds of his many possible constituents, he will start protecting their information with the fervor he claims to possess.