By Vasily Gatov
Most people do not usually meet and befriend political consultants or spin doctors. Neither are they well acquainted with system architects and hackers – those who write rules of computer network systems and those who crack them. The overwhelming majority of the public gathers their understanding and perception of such professionals from movies or TV-series, from ‘Wag the dog’ to ‘Mr.Robot’. While the imaginary characters bear some similarity to those who exist and function in normal life, the reality is as far away from the scripted movie as the real story of Cambridge Analytica is removed from current media coverage.
Several noteworthy elements are different from the established narrative. At first I tried to write it in one sentence but decided it’s like telling the story of War and Peace in one take. So, I have listed them instead.
(1) A gang of a malign manipulators (Bannon, Manafort, Stone and other Trump campaign spin doctors) stole the 2016 elections from American liberals. They did so by (2) using hacked personal data from Facebook users, committed by some shady Russian-born British researcher Alexander Kogan, who (3) sold this data to the nefarious Cambridge Analytica, who (4) processed 50 million Facebook profiles through even more malicious algorithm. The algorithm was developed (5) by a Polish scientist that employs so-called “psychographic prediction/profiling”. Finally, after being (6) inundated with dark, unfair and often untrue (but highly personalized) Facebook ads, some “deplorables” elected Trump.
Almost everything in this dominant media narrative is misleading, if not wrong. Let us go step by step.
About Trump Spin Doctors
Trump spin doctors are not good – but no spin doctors are. It is their business to win elections and sway political pictures, serving the client’s interests and spending their campaign funds. As evidenced by Barack Obama’s successful digital campaign in his 2008 race for reelection, internet and social networks play a much more important role in US elections, and spin doctors increasingly target this target-rich digital information domain.
What About the Hacking?
Alexander Kogan did not hack or steal Facebook users’ information. He legitimately used features of the social network’s API (application program interface) available to researchers and data miners until 2014. Also, Facebook users who participated in his research on psychographics provided him their profiles voluntarily (link to detailed analysis). He wasn’t the only one who harvested vast amounts of user data either. Other social analytic services have similar sets, and some of them may have far more than Kogan ever captured. Besides Palantir and Crimson Hexagon, there are more than a dozen smaller companies that still have access to Facebook data.
What About Selling Users’ Data?
The only reasonable part of the narrative is this: Kogan really did offer Cambridge Analytica his dataset for purchase. He did not obtain Facebook’s explicit consent for such a sale – to the contrary, the social network demanded that researchers destroy their collections prior to 2014 when API rules (here’s the role of system architects) were changed. But Facebook carelessly decided that all developers – including Kogan – who had the data, complied with their deletion demand. They only went after Kogan and Cambridge Analytica after The Guardian and England’s Channel Four broke the story.
What About Psychographic Profiling?
Psychographic profiling has been around for more than 50 years. Michal Kosinski and Alexander Kogan managed to marry digital profiles to a known concept with some degree of digital enhancement like graphs, pie-charts and real-time maps that appealed to less technologically savvy customers. Cambridge Analytica just repeated the trick targeting the “psychographic model” of a shameless and immoral American spin doctor. So they sold to Bannon, Manafort et. al. exactly the thing those people wanted – a shadow tool that compliments already nefarious methods from a not-so-digital arsenal including but not limited to compromising materials, character assassination, populism, demagoguery, supremacism and nationalistic fervor.
And What About the Scandal?
When the Kogan-Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was exposed, all sides tried to downplay the importance of each and every component of the sham. Kogan and Kosinski noted that psychographic profiling only marginally impacted the efficiency of targeted communication. Cambridge Analytica clumsily attempted to pretend it did not do something illegal or morally dubious, although it did, at least under norms of US electoral legislation. Facebook delivered a delayed apology and purged analytics and advertising management services built around its own data.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Actors on all sides should have anticipated this result, particularly if any of them were Russians, I would note. Among most the most beloved Russian short children’s’ novels of all time, Viktor Dragunsky’s Nothing Stays Buried Forever stands out as eloquent fable of the inevitability of the exposure of lies. Every participant in the Cambridge Analytica scheme lied: scientists exaggerate the psychographic effect, digital manipulators lied to spin doctors, spin doctors lied to the client, the client lied to the voters, Facebook lied to its users about the safety of their personal data.
Cambridge Analytica seemed so proud of their achievement that it started marketing their services, shamelessly pretending psychographic profiling decided the fate of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Because Alexander Nix knew he was lying, he expanded the offering of the company with tools and tricks from the spin doctor’s arsenal (see an episode of Channel Four documentary where he sounds like Al Pacino’s character from ‘Wag the Dog’). Alexander Kogan knew he fooled both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and therefore corrected and partially discredited his own work as soon as the story went public. Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort and their associates, who knew they did some improper things in order to win the election, made various partial and complete denials of knowing the details of the scam, only to find themselves in the eye of a legal and political storm. Facebook lied to users, to regulators and to itself and discovered the highest price of such dishonesty, which has impacted the social media giant’s market value and reputation.
The only unpunished person in this lineup of liars is Donald J. Trump. But maybe his turn is somewhere around the corner.
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