The Cambridge Analytica scandal revelations keep surprising us.
The media frenzy and political umbrage over the apparent theft of upwards of 50 million Facebook user profiles in 2014 by Cambridge Analytica, a British-based voter targeting operation co-founded by Steve Bannon, to assist Trump's 2016 campaign is overlooking a critical fact: Bannon's data didn't deliver.
Cambridge Analytica developed psychological profiles of millions of American voters, yet its data wasn't used by the Trump campaign in the runup to Election Day, its top officials have said. Apparently, the profiles weren't as current as Republican National Committee voter files, nor as effective as using Facebook's platform for political advertising in 2016.
"When 60 Minutes asked Trump digital director Brad Parscale about Cambridge, though, he said that his team never actually used the data," Colin Delany, an online media expert, noted Sunday for Epolitics.com. "Instead, they could target voters and potential donors more effectively using the information they gathered by actually running Facebook ads and measuring the results."
The 2014 theft of the Facebook data -- the subject of weekend exposes in the New York Times and abroad -- also isn't news.
That data breach, which raises all kinds of user privacy questions apart from the political arena, was first reported by the Guardian in late 2015. The Guardian then noted that Cambridge Analytica was using the pilfered data while backing Ted Cruz's presidential bid.
"A little-known data company, now embedded within Cruz's campaign and indirectly financed by his primary billionaire benefactor, paid researchers at Cambridge University to gather detailed psychological profiles about the US electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting US Facebook users built with an online survey," the Guardian's Harry Davies reported. The parent company boasted of its "massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States -- for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles."
Nonetheless, the weekend reports in the New York Times and London newspaper, the Observer, have caused media and political firestorms. On Friday, Facebook announced it was suspending its relationship with Cambridge Analytica, prompting questions about why it hadn't done so sooner if its user data had been stolen. Facebook also suspended the account of Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower in the newspaper stories, drawing condemnation for what "they have known privately for two years."
Meanwhile, on the domestic political front, there were calls for more investigations and regulatory oversight. A Democratic senator demanded that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A House Intelligence Committee Democrat echoed that demand. In Massachusetts, the state attorney general, another Democrat, announced she was launching an investigation. An ex-Federal Trade Commission official speculated that the Facebook breach may have violated a 2011 federal court order protecting user privacy, exposing the social media company to multi-millions in fines.
In Europe, the political hyperbole was even more extreme, because Cambridge Analytica worked for the pro-Brexit campaign, which won a British national vote to leave the European Union and pre-dated Trump's election as president in November 2016.
"One member of Parliament, Jo Stevens, said Facebook's relationship with its users' personal data 'reminds me of an abusive relationship where there is coercive control going on,'" the Washington Post reported. "At another point in the [Parliament] hearing, fellow lawmaker Rebecca Pow questioned whether Facebook was a 'massive surveillance operation.'"
Some Perspective, Please
Perhaps some of the outrage and umbrage comes from the growing realization that social media platforms aren't just friendly places where like-minded people associate, but companies with an advertising business model based on surveillance, data collection and targeting audiences -- whether selling consumer goods or political messages. Nonetheless, the current media and political frenzy is ignoring a critical point -- that Trump's campaign didn't use Cambridge Analytica voter profiles because they weren't as current or as effective as the RNC's data and Facebook's advertising platform.