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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/8/19

Micro-targeting: How Personal Data Stolen From Facebook Helped Elect Trump

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Imagine a world in which corporations, political organizations, billionaires, and hostile governments had the computing power, data storage capacity, personal information about you (think Facebook), and sophisticated computer algorithms to accurately predict your behavior. What if they could predict the behavior of every adult in the United States? Then imagine they could find you on social media by filtering the entire US adult population according to the specific personality characteristics they compiled on everyone. And after identifying you by your personality, imaging that they could flood your personal media accounts with specific messages and images designed to trigger your emotions, alter your opinions, or fundamentally change your social outlook without you catching on that this is happening to you.

This science-fiction horror scenario, reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie years ago, isn't science fiction. It is the real world in which we live today.

What the above scenario describes is "micro-targeting." It is just one of the latest high-tech propaganda weapons manipulating our personal information against us. It was first unleashed in this country by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, but it was previously used by them in Great Britain during the Brexit campaign. It has also been used in numerous other foreign countries during their elections. It is a certainty that micro-targeting will play a much bigger role in the 2020 election cycle.

Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm that combined data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes here and abroad. Public scrutiny that followed them after their schemes were later uncovered force the company out of business, but their successful application of micro-targeting and other sophisticated propaganda tools triggered an arms race among big businesses and powerful interest groups to master these new technologies and apply them for both competitive advantages and political control.

There is a 2019 documentary currently available on Netflix that chronicles the story of Cambridge Analytica and how our personal data is being stolen from us and used against us. It's called "The Great Hack," and everyone should see it after reading this. There are also many other articles now about micro-targeting and other propaganda technologies being adopted by corporations and political consulting companies. My limited purpose here is to give a concrete example of how micro-targeting was used in the 2016 Presidential campaign.

In 2016 Cambridge Analytica stole the personal data of 50 million US Facebook users to create their giant database. They fed this data into very sophisticated AI-enhanced algorithms (mathematical computer programs) to create very accurate "biopsychosocial" personality profiles on every person from whom personal data was stolen. From these profiles,they were able to accurately identify adults in the United States who either didn't have strong political opinions or were otherwise susceptible to having their minds changed. They called these people the "persuadables," and there were many of them all across the country. In fact, there were too many to directly target each of them, but this isn't necessary. We don't elect presidents by the popular vote, but by electoral votes from individual states.

To understand how micro-targeting works, it is helpful to review how state election systems works. Every state divides its electorate into scores of smaller voting precincts or polling districts, each with a long public record of how precincts voted in the past. Presidential campaigns conduct extensive polling in every state district where their candidate has a historical possibility of winning. After analyzing the polling data in conjunction with historical voting trends, they are able to identify the voting precincts that they need to win in order to win the state's electoral votes. Campaigns use this information to determine where to campaign, where to spend money on ads and where to build strong get-out-the-vote efforts.

Cambridge Analytica went further. They identified and targeted all the persuadables in every swing precinct in four swing states, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Then they used social media networks and their knowledge of the personality profiles of each targeted person to bombard them with images and content designed specifically to get them to either vote for Donald Trump (and other Republican candidates down-ballot) or to feel so dispirited that they didn't vote at all.

For the sake of argument, let's assume there was a total of 24 swing precincts targeted in these four swing states. The number was probably more. Each precinct contained around 20,000 persuadable voters, according to the documentary report. That means at least 480,000 individuals were targeted by a personal media blitz to either vote for Donald Trump or be dissuaded from voting for Hillary Clinton. That's just 480,000 voters out of 130 million.

An analysis of the 2016 election found that the results came down to the winners of the six swing states. Hillary Clinton won two of those states. Donald Trump won four of them, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, the same states targeted by Cambridge Analytica.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post:

"Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania account for 46 electoral votes. If Clinton had won these states, she could have sealed the presidency with 274 total electoral votes" This election was effectively decided by 107,000 people in these three states. Trump won the popular vote there by that combined amount. That amounts to 0.09 percent of all votes cast in this election."

Donald Trump unexpectedly won Michigan by a narrow margin of 0.23%. This stands as the narrowest margin of victory in Michigan's presidential election history. He unexpectedly won Wisconsin by a narrow margin of just 0.77 percent, becoming the first Republican candidate to win in Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes out of more than six million votes cast, a difference of 0.72 percent and the narrowest margin in a presidential election for that state in 176 years. Trump did better in Florida where he won a plurality with 1.2 percent of the vote.

So, did Cambridge Analytica play a key role in Donald Trump's electoral victory? It seems conceivable, but they weren't alone. Russian cyberattacks on our election also played a significant role in helping to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Did the Robert Mueller investigation cover micro-targeting of voters during the 2016 campaign? No. This election activity was not directly linked to Russian interference and so it was outside the scope of his investigation, although there is some evidence of a nexus between Russia and Cambridge Analytica involving the Brexit campaign. Also, Robert Mueller was not charged with investigating the actual impact of Russian interference in our election results. No one is investigating that issue. It is possible that the stealing of personal Facebook data was referred out elsewhere for criminal investigation, but we don't know.

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Brian Lynch is a retired social worker who worked in the areas of adult mental health and child protection for many years. His work brought him into direct contact with all the major social issues of the day and many of our basic social (more...)

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