How Cambridge Analytica harvested 60m Facebook profiles to influence the US election

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 20 March 2018
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

Cambridge Analytica, the “full service propaganda machine” that harvested up to 60 million Facebook user profiles to influence the US election, has previously revealed to AdNews that it plans to establish its services in Australia.

Over the weekend, former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on how the data analytics firm harvested Facebook data through the use of an app to create a ‘psychological warfare weapon’ that would help Donald Trump win the 2016 US election in one of the greatest political upsets of modern times.

Journalist Carole Cadwalldr interviewed the Cambridge Analytic whistleblower in an important piece of journalism in the Guardian's sister paper The Observer.

The allegations are alarming for the advertising industry, users of social media, and data and privacy advocates. 

At the very least, it has amplified calls for greater regulation over Facebook and other digital media platforms that collect individual's data to on-sell to advertisers and other companies.

Facebook has vehemently rejected any suggestions the activities of Global Science Research, Cambridge Analytica and others associated with the companies amount to a data breach, and has suspended the Facebook pages of Wylie, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), including their political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica (see below for more detail).

Read more: Cambridge Analytica plans to operate in Australia

AdNews has trawled through the allegations and summarised them to shed light on how a firm like Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to influence behavioural change on a scale rarely seen before by using a social media platform.

The Cambridge Analytica team consisted of data scientists, psychologists, photographers, videographers, creatives and experts in media planning to work out the right messaging, frequency and placements to drive a change in voter consideration.

“Websites would be created, blogs would be created, whatever we think this target profile would be receptive to we would create content on the internet for them to find…until they come to think something differently,” Wylie said, in an interview with The Guardian.

The whistleblower described Cambridge Analytica as “a full-service propaganda machine” and said its activities amounted to a “grossly unethical experiment” that messed with the “psychology of entire nation” and the “democratic process”.

This form of psychological warfare takes a different approach from traditional political campaigning. Instead of grandstanding to large audiences, it’s more about “whispering in the ears” of individuals, using whatever messaging is required to change an individual’s views.

This approach ultimately fragments society and has caused division in the US, which has become increasingly amplified since Trump’s ascendency to the White House.

“If you want to fundamentally change society, you have to break it, and it’s only when you break it that you can remould the pieces into your vision of a new society,” Wylie said. 

chris-wylie2.pngChristopher Wylie blows the whistle on Cambridge Analytica in this Observer interview.

How did they do it?

Wylie said Cambridge Analytica’s strategy was to create a cultural weapon to win the war.

“The pitch [to former Trump aide Steve Bannon] was we were going to combine micro-targeting, which had existed in politics, but bring on board new constructs of psychology,” he said. “We wouldn’t just be targeting you as a voter, but you as a personality.”

To do this, they enlisted the help of Cambridge University psychology Dr Aleksandr Kogan to produce ‘psychological warfare weapon’.

“What Kogan offered us was something that was way cheaper, way faster and of a quality that nothing matched,” Wylie said.

“They had apps from Facebook that had special permission to harvest data not from just the persons that used the app or joined the app, but also it would then go into their entire friend network, and pull out all of the friend’s data as well.”

Wylie said app developers had the ability to not only see user profiles of those who used their own Facebook accounts to log in to the app, ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, but also all of the Facebook profiles of their friends.

“We would only have to touch a couple of hundred thousand people to expand into their entire social network which would then scale us to most of America. If you were a friend of somebody who had this app, you would have no idea that I would be able to pull all of your data,” Wylie said.

The sort of data that could be harvested in this way included user profile information such as your name, location, status updates, likes, relationship status and other information a user chooses to display on their profile page.

Wylie said upwards of 50 million to 60 million Facebook profiles were collected in a 2-3 month period.

“We spent $1 million harvesting tens of millions of Facebook profiles and those profiles were used as the basis of the algorithms that became the foundation of Cambridge Analytica. The company was founded on using Facebook data.”

This allowed Cambridge Analytica to work out the types of messaging that voters were susceptible to, including the topics, tone, how it was framed and where you are likely to consume that.

With its team of psychologists, creatives and planners, it served ads, created fake news websites and used other information touchpoints to deliver propaganda that subtly nudged voters in the 2016 election campaign. 

Facebook’s defence

Facebook has vehemently rejected any suggestions the activities of Global Science Research, Cambridge Analytica and others associated with the companies amount to a data breach.

Check out Facebook's full defence here

They have suspended the Facebook pages of Wylie, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), including their political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica.

If the allegations are true, Facebook says it was duped by Cambridge University psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan and that he violated its platform’s policies by passing on app data to a third party (SCL/Cambridge Analytica).

A further breach is the allegation that SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan failed to delete data obtained through Facebook after the social media platform requested this was done in 2015, when it first found out about violation.

Since the discovery of the breach, Facebook says it has tightened vetting process over the apps it allows to access profile data and also carries out manual and automated checks to ensure compliance with its policies.

Facebook points out that users can manage or revoke permissions over how apps use their data, but AdNews would be very surprised if any users were aware that the apps their friends used allowed developers to harvest their data.

It’s also unclear if Facebook has informed users who were targeted by Cambridge Analytica, SCL and others if they were manipulated in this way.

What is being questioned by politicians and privacy advocates is whether tougher rules need to be introduced around how Facebook protects the privacy of its users and the data that it allows to be used by third parties.

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