Facebook alone didn’t put Donald Trump in the White House, but it did come up with the perfect expression to describe how he got there: It’s complicated.
Fake news on Facebook, Russian ads on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s alleged appeals to Facebook users’ “inner demons” make for a scary narrative of the social media platform’s complicity in enabling sinister forces to undermine American democracy. What is thus far known about their effectiveness, however, suggests their impact has been overblown. It will be a while before we find a signal in the noise.
To really figure out how he won, you have to start by asking how she lost. By all accounts, Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a far more sophisticated data analytics team that had harvested more personal information about individual voters from social media and other sources than the fly-by-night Trump operation could ever have gathered in its short and unruly existence. So, maybe data are not destiny. Or at least not in the way modern campaign gurus would have us believe.
The Clinton campaign relied too heavily on algorithmic “models built from a database of the country’s 200 million voters, including turnout history, demographics and consumer information, updated daily by an automated poll asking for vote preference to project the election result,” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election victory, insisted in The American Prospect last fall. “But when campaign developments overtake the model’s assumptions, you get surprised by the voters – and this is what happened repeatedly.”
Whatever the reason for Mr. Trump’s victory, there is something a bit disingenuous about the outrage being directed at Facebook after revelations that the personal data of some 50 million of the social media platform’s users allegedly ended up in the hands of a political consulting firm that worked on his campaign. Facebook was apparently aware of this and claims to have asked Cambridge Analytica to destroy the data two years ago. The company said it complied with the request, although a Canadian whistleblower who worked for Cambridge told The Observer of London: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles … and target their ‘inner demons.’”
Of course, one voter’s inner demons are another’s progressive values. If what whistleblower Christopher Wylie suggests is true, Cambridge clearly took social media tactics to another level altogether. But campaigns of all stripes have been data mining social media sites with or without the knowledge or permission of their users to target individual voters. What Cambridge is alleged to have done on behalf of the Trump campaign may turn your stomach. But it may have been no more invasive than what Barack Obama’s presidential campaign team did for the 2012 U.S. election, or what Canada’s Liberal Party, which hired veterans of the Obama data operation, did to win the 2015 federal election here.
As The Guardian reported in 2012: “Every time an individual volunteers to help out … he or she will be asked to sign onto the [Obama] re-election website with their Facebook credentials. That in turn will engage Facebook Connect, the digital interface that shares a user’s personal information with a third party.” The Facebook data were merged with voter lists to create what one Obama campaign veteran called “the Moneyball moment for politics. … If you can figure out how to leverage the power of friendship, that opens up incredible possibilities.”
The Liberals knew exactly who to go to as they were putting together their own data operation for the 2015 campaign. They hired Precision Strategies, a U.S. firm created by some of the masterminds behind the Obama campaign’s data operation, including Jen O’Malley Dillon, the architect of Mr. Obama’s data strategy and field operation. According to Precision, she led the firm’s work for the Liberals, “designing and orchestrating an energized campaign effort that leveraged the same tools and strategy that yielded extraordinary success” for Mr. Obama.
The head of the Liberals’ digital strategy, Tom Pitfield, boasted to The Economist in 2016: “We would create an ad, see how people reacted to it on Facebook, tweak the content and test it again. On some days we would produce more than 50 ads.” That would have necessarily involved an awful lot of monitoring Facebook users to target them with individualized pitches.
The Obama campaign’s harvesting of Facebook data, which impressed the Liberals enough to hire some of the same people who oversaw it, inspired awe rather than outrage. The Cambridge allegations have only provoked outrage. What am I missing here?