UPDATE 4.5.18: I originally reported Facebook provided Russian American professor Aleksandr Kogan with data on 57 million friendships between 2013 and 2015. Facebook now claims Kogan and Cambridge Analytica gained access to data from as many as 87 million Facebook users.
Most people are aware something bad happened with Facebook last week. Today, Sunday, March 25th, Facebook took out full-page ads in seven British newspapers and three American publications to apologize for the ongoing Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal engulfing the social network in a legal and regulatory nightmare.
I’m a media analyst and developer. I write applications for online users and provide marketing services on social media platforms. Not only have I been aware of the practices by Facebook, Google, and other providers, I’ve helped my clients use them. These companies made billions of dollars with their revolutionary techniques to focus advertising on well-defined, targeted demographic groups. These strategies offer advertisers more bang-for-their-buck. A traditional TV or radio ad might play each evening at 6:00pm before the evening news. Advertisers know the viewing audience, for example, is individuals 40-60 years of age, suburban, and predominately White. Tens of millions might see the spot or promotion, but realistically, half could care less.
Information about our personality types, predilections, our hopes and fears — data we unwittingly divulge via status updates, tweets, likes, and photos — will increasingly be used to target us as voters and consumers, for good and ill, and often without our knowledge.
Facebook offered marketing professionals greater precision. Rather than blasting their spot to tens of millions of people, while half are bored or disinterested, the social media platform allowed companies to pinpoint a specific demographic group, such as White, suburban housewives in the 35-40 age range, who had a household income of $50,000 to $75,000 and supported Hillary Clinton. More importantly, they could tailor the promotion to these women and all their female friends who had similar interests.
Facebook wasn’t airing a commercial for a company introducing a new chardonnay to America. The social media company displayed the spot only in the Newsfeed of a woman who “liked” white wine and had posted a picture of herself and her best friend enjoying a glass of chardonnay the previous summer in the Catskills. All her female friends who “liked” the picture of her vacation in the Catskills received the promotion as well.
In addition, you may have noticed after “liking” a picture for a product while using Facebook (or other social media), an advertisement for that same product appeared when reading an article on the NY Times (or other publications). This is Google AdWords. It’s an online advertising service where advertisers pay to display brief advertising copy, product listings and video content within the Google ad network to web users. You, the users of Facebook, Google, and others, have become the product. Your information is bought and sold by 1,000s of companies around the world.
Generally, Americans are relatively private people. Facebook has become a marketer’s paradise, as users are revealing, discussing and liking every tiny detail about their lives. Gold Mine!!!
Cambridge Analytics and PsychoGraphics
As is seems with everything in America, anything good is soon abused. What had been a fun, convenient portal to share photos of kids, grandkids and cats was now a means to (1) predict how you might vote in elections, and (2) influence your voting or other social decisions.
“Cambridge Analytics has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.” Christopher Wylie
Christopher Wylie, at 24, originated the idea for Cambridge Analytica, and oversaw what may have been the first critical breach of Facebook. At 18, he had worked with Barack Obama’s national director of targeting and shared their techniques with Canada’s Liberal party. While working on his PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he devised a plan to harvest Facebook profiles about millions of Americans and use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles.
We ‘broke’ Facebook
The group then targeted users with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup — called PsychoGraphics. He claims, “We ‘broke’ Facebook.” Carole Cadwalladr, writer for The Guardian, says Wylie considers himself to be the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Bannon was presidential candidate Donald Trump’s chief strategist at the time.
Wylie says Bannon was smart and really interested in ideas. “He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions conservative, young White men feel.” Wylie told Bannon he believed politics was like fashion.
Bannon understood Wylie, as he subscribes to the Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture: To change politics, one must change culture. Wylie claims fashion trends are a useful proxy to achieve this objective. Donald Trump, for example, is like a pair of Uggs or Crocs. The mission for Bannon was to change people’s opinion from “Ugh. Totally ugly” to a point where everyone is wearing them. The challenge is how to affect this change.
In 2007, David Stillwell, a Ph.D. student in psychology, excavated this digital gold mine. He knew of a personality test, Ocean, that measured openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (referred to as the Big Five), and was widely used by psychologists. The problem was gathering sufficient data, as people naturally resisted detailing personal information about their fears, desires and motivations. Facebook solved this obstacle.
My Facebook friend, Rachel Iha, shared a summary after using one of these psychological games. This one comes from NameTests.com. The output is simply amazing. It includes a picture of her mother on a background appealing to women along with a personalized statement. This is an example of PsychoGraphics. How can Rachel not be endeared? One wants to hug her darling mother. The meme asks, “What did you inherit from your mother?”
Rachel, your Mother has given you the heart of a warrior. She faced hardships, overcame many obstacles, but she never gave up because she wanted the best for you. You inherited that same spirit. When you face a challenge, you dig deep, take a deep breath, get things done, just like Mom.
Bullcrap! This application knows nothing about Rachel’s mother. All mothers faced hardship and overcame obstacles. Rachel doesn’t realize the deception. The company has no way to know if Rachel “inherited” that same spirit, but it sounds good to her and her friends. Rachel loves to post caring sentimental memes such as this. Because Rachel’s friends trust her, some will play the game as well.
Here’s what happens when they follow the link. By logging in with their Facebook account, they voluntarily give the company much of their personal information — as well as revealing tons about their friends. Maybe you’re careful and private on social media. Did you know “your friends” were giving strangers and unknown people information about you? Most of us did not. Thanks Mark Zuckerburg!
Ph.D student Stillwell took some Big Five questionnaires, created a quiz format and uploaded an app to Facebook called myPersonality. This game went viral. Millions of people took the quiz, and giving permission, Stillwell accumulated data on personality traits and Facebook habits of 4 million users. Using this data, Stillwell showed he could predict an individual’s skin color or sexuality based on Facebook “likes;” or link high intelligence based on the likes of “thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report” and “curly fries.” Conversely, users who liked Hello Kitty images were strong on openness, but lower on conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability.
Mr. Stillwell’s work caught the attention of a young Russian American professor named Aleksandr Kogan. He created his own Facebook app, “ThisIsYourDigitalLife,” that not only collected personality data on 270,000 people who took the quiz but gave Kogan Facebook user data on all their friends. Facebook also provided Kogan with data on 57 million friendships between 2013 and 2015.
Using Kogan’s data, Cambridge Analytics was born on December 31, 2013. The company sought some of the $10 billion American political market claiming to have “cutting-edge” tactics using “behavioral microtargeting” — influencing voters based not on their demographics but on their personalities — and a sophisticated data modeling system to help win elections. The company tested messages that tapped into immigration fears, anti-government sentiment, and an affinity for strongmen. This included slogans, such as “build the wall,” “drain the swamp,” “race realism.” Heard any of these recently?
Facebook is Cambridge Analytica
Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic techniques were no different from Facebook’s core business model, which mines the vast amounts of data it collects on users to guide hypertargeted advertising. These techniques are gold mines for shoe companies or political campaigns or dubious fake news sites.
“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.”
Kogan claims everything he did was legal and that he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which granted him permission to collect data through his apps.
Remember data about our personality types, predilections, our hopes and fears — the information we unwittingly divulge via status updates, tweets, likes, and photos — will increasingly be used to target us as voters and consumers, for good and ill, and often without our knowledge.
Additional Examples of Psychographics
When you play these games, you give third-party companies detailed information about yourself and your friends. These seem to be tailored to attracting women. Facebook sells this information. Other companies use and sell your personal, private information. Be careful!
My Facebook friend, Penny Holman Fisher, played the game, “Where were you in a past life?” She says, “Too funny not to share! Laugh away ya all!”
My Facebook friend, Mylene Lots, played the game, “What is your powerful statement that everyone should hear?” She responds to her friends, “Absolutely”
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