Privacy, politics and Facebook data

The year was 2008, and the country was in the midst of a presidential election that would eventually hand the White House to Barack Obama.

One area of that campaign in particular — Obama’s use of digital campaigning — seemed to gain more attention in political circles than others.

He spent more money on it. He had more staffers who worked on it. He put a higher priority on what it could do. And his people seemed to know how to use it better than the republicans did.

Obama’s team even raised an estimated $60 million more than they otherwise would have, simply by running experimental tests with their website.

Interestingly enough, that was the year I was hired to work in the field of digital campaigns myself.

The following election in 2012 was, to many, proof of concept. That year, Obama was re-elected, and his campaign was hailed as groundbreaking and innovative.

Case studies were written. Reporters fawned.

As a practitioner myself, I studied what Obama did in both 2008 and 2012 with great interest. Of particular curiosity to me was the Obama campaign’s use of data mining, specifically on the Facebook platform in 2012.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

I bring this up for a very specific reason. Right now, the media is in a full meltdown over a company — Cambridge Analytica — that worked with Donald Trump, and how they used data mining and psychographics to control your brain.

Given how what they did compared to what Obama and its digital team did in 2012, I find this reaction a bit ironic. Back then, you see, this kind of work was considered an act of campaign brilliance.

What Cambridge Analytica did, and what Obama’s team did in 2012 was exactly the same. And I mean that. Exactly. The. Same.

Both exploited the use of apps that made use of the Facebook API, which at the time allowed developers to gain access to data on all of a user’s friends. The only real difference between the two was that the Obama app had more users — more than 1 million — and thus a larger dataset, than the quiz used by Cambridge.

That user base of its app gave Obama the potential to contact roughly 98 percent of Facebook users in the United States. This is far more than what Cambridge pulled.

As it happens, I know how this works because I spearheaded the engineering of several of these apps for races I worked on, including the Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin. Indeed, my use of tools exactly like this got me named by Campaigns and Elections magazine as one of the 10 best communicators in politics in 2014.

Ultimately, Facebook decided to change its API that year to no longer allow this massive data mining.

But please, don’t give them any credit for protecting your privacy. The move was far more about protecting their social graph from third parties looking to kill Facebook.

The data collected by Aleksandr Kogan was done within an extended grace period offered to existing apps. There was nothing illicit or illegal or against policies in the collection of that data.

Cambridge Analytica did, however, screw up. If they had collected the data themselves they would have been fine. Their ultimate problem was the data transfer from an academic, which was against Facebook’s policies.

There is no question that the company is full of shady deeds and characters. They appear, for example, to have violated FEC rules by hiring foreign workers for political activities, which is strictly forbidden.

Their terrible reputation, and their inability to deliver on their lofty promises is one of the main reasons that Trump dropped Cambridge Analytica and started using Republican National Committee data in September 2016.

They have done plenty of things wrong, and they aren’t terribly competent.

But the complaints we are hearing aren’t about their sloppiness or incompetence. It is in the use of data. We are being told by the New York Times that an underhanded Trump campaign was “harvesting the data of millions” for nefarious purposes.

Their implication is that Trump’s campaign either stole our data, or used it in some kind of sick, twisted plan to program our brains to vote for The Donald.

This was not a data breach. Nor was it illegal. Nor was it anything out of the ordinary from what had been done already for more than six years.

Rather, this type of advanced use of data, analytics and psychographics was held up as an example of what smart, advanced, cutting edge campaigns did to help themselves win more than six years prior.

Not now. Now doing this is bad.

Just don’t remind the New York Times of that time they wrote of the exact same work being done by Obama’s “digital masterminds.”


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.