YOU will have heard the name Cambridge Analytica everywhere in the past week. Working for over a year, The Guardian and the Observer; the New York Times and Channel 4 News broke the story of how Cambridge Analytica worked with the stolen data of over 50 million Facebook profiles to sway people’s opinions towards Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. The story has everything that makes for fascinating news: a whistleblower, entrapment, sex, money and politics.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie worked at Cambridge Analytica (backed by right-wing American billionaire Robert Mercer) and shared details of how Steve Bannon, the alt-right former chief strategist for Donald Trump, believed that to change people’s politics, first you have to change culture. Changing culture and thus getting more people to vote for Donald Trump, was the goal and Cambridge Analytica were the firm to achieve it.
To follow through though, they would need a lot of data and information about a lot of people. To get this data Cambridge Analytica worked with someone named Aleksandr Kogan who worked for a company named Global Science Research. He also happens to be an associate professor at St Petersburg State University in Russia …
Aleksandr created a Facebook app which would test someone’s personality. We have all seen these apps in our news feed and you have probably, like me, received annoying notifications when a friend uses one of these apps. Whenever you start using a Facebook app you are met with a page asking you to give the app permission to access your information, or to send a message to your friends or post on your wall.
What you might not have known, as I certainly didn’t, is that these apps can be used, not just to access all of your information, but to access all of the information on every person on your friends list. This workaround allowed Aleksandr and Cambridge Analytica access to over 50 million Facebook users’ data without seeking their permission.
In turn, Cambridge Analytica then used this information to target key voters in areas that Trump needed to win to secure his spot in the Oval Office. Initially, I wondered how much information a Facebook profile can actually hold about any individual.
Clearly wondering the same thing, Twitter user Dylan McKay (@dylanmckaynz) downloaded all the data Facebook holds on him and started digging. He found phone records, contact lists and data on texts sent and received, and even contacts he had deleted from his phone.
It’s not hard to imagine then, that with this level of data held on 50 million people – never mind adding in views shared in posts, private messages, page likes, article likes and websites you’ve signed into via Facebook – that Cambridge Analytica was able to tailor propaganda and fake news to appeal to you and sway your opinion.
And that is exactly what they did.
Cambridge Analytica don’t just work in political data and advertising, however. In secret recordings by Channel 4 News, the now suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica is seen admitting that they can send women (referred to as, “girls” in the video) to have sex with a political candidate to make them susceptible to blackmail; or, they could even send someone pretending to be a property developer to meet with a political candidate to offer them a bribe which they will film using secret cameras and then release online.
You have to enjoy the irony of this discussion all being caught on a secret camera.
As the Channel 4 News story was airing Facebook staff were entering the Cambridge Analytica offices.
The Information Commissioner stated she was filing for a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica, but at the time of writing this she still has not received it, five days later.
This story is shocking, interesting and fascinating, but most of all it is utterly terrifying. Since these stories initially broke, we have seen a flood of further reporting showing that Cambridge Analytica have worked for the UK Government, have very suspicious ties to the Tory party, and have meddled in elections all over the world. As well as previous reporting which showed Cambridge Analytica’s ties to the Leave campaign in the EU referendum.
The use of social media to directly advertise to people is not new. Initially popularised by the Obama campaign in 2008, it has been used by political campaigns ever since.
What Cambridge Analytica does is different, however. Where in the past campaigns would use Facebook advertising to deliver key policy messages in areas where they were polling badly, Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign stole people’s data and used it against them by spreading propaganda, lies and fake news.
We must, from now on, be more wary and diligent when getting news from social media sources, and everyone must consider the information they are sharing with huge corporations who sell you as a commodity.
But most of all, we must recognise that this is corruption at the highest level. This completely undermines and destroys quality democracy. Now more than ever, we need to demand better from both our politicians and media.
Where social media was initially a ground-breaking tool we used to get to the heart of a story and bypass editorial bias, it has now been hijacked to spread disinformation and we should all be extremely worried.
As an avid political junkie and full-time writer, James Ledbetter worked for Blasting News for 3 years. During that time, James gained over 45,000 readers, reaching people from all over the world. His work has been promoted by thousands of writers and a few politicians. Since starting with Western Free Press in May of 2018, James has gained close to 100,000 new readers and is currently one of the top-ranked writers for the company. James writes thought-provoking political articles on a daily basis. Favorite quote: “If content is king, then research is queen.” SEE MY FULL PROFILE