Home » The Cambridge Analytica Psychological Warfare Scare: Facebook Data For The Taking, Ads For The Making

The Cambridge Analytica Psychological Warfare Scare: Facebook Data For The Taking, Ads For The Making

psychological warfare facebook data

Whistblower Christopher Wylie of Cambridge Analytica came forward this week to discuss his firm’s role in creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool”. (In the industry, we sometimes call them “advertisements”).

Interestingly, Wylie adapted his PhD work originally geared towards fashion trend forecasting to target millions of US Facebook users with political ads.

The Guardian says these tools were leveraged to create “sophisticated psychological and political profiles” of voters. The profiles themselves (if not the scale and data acquisition methods) do not appear extraordinarily sophisticated but, nevertheless, you don’t have to be sophisticated to serve highly effective ads (or weapons).

To be sure, Cambridge Analytics did nothing your run-of-the-mill consumer Fortune 1000 isn’t doing to sell products on Facebook as we speak.

The formula is straightforward:

  1. Gain data permissions via a ‘fun’ quiz/app 
  2. Analyze user data and A/B test messaging
  3. Correlate sentiments and friend connections
  4. Serve more effective ads to users in relevant areas (thus making your ad dollars go further than your opponent)

Here is the 2014 paper from Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre that inspired the use of this technology in the political sphere, “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans.”

Not surprisingly, if you ask someone 100 questions about themselves, you can target them with pretty decent ads.

You can technically call what Cambridge Analytica did a ‘secret psychological warfare tool,’ but really what we’re talking about is a run-of-the-mill social media advertising — on a large scale; in a politically important context. Facebook’s business model, and value-add to users, is to make user data relatively accessible. 

This was not a data breach. The information Cambridge Analytica gathered on 50M Americans is just out there.

Cambridge Analytica spent about $1M to harvest their user data and potentially spent a few million more to acquire pre-harvested data from Global Science Research (GSR) and others. This sounds like a lot of money, but as someone working in the trade of data, I can tell you this is a low estimate of what large B2C and B2B companies spend each year on similar data.

Is the trend concerning? Yes. But, not just because one political party did a marginally better job of creating ads in the last election.

The trend is concerning because everything you do on Facebook is potentially accessible to interested parties. The vast majority of users offer up their data without a second thought. 

As a reminder, the following data is always public: 

  • Your name, profile picture, and cover photo 
  • Gender 
  • Listing your networks (ex: school, workplace) 
  • Username and user ID 
  • Age range 
  • Language 

Combined with The Public Feed API, which is a fire hose of all non-private status updates, advertisers have access to a lot of information without needing any additional permissions.

With additional permissions, and to some degree through the Ads Platform, a trove of data is available advertisers and app creators:

About Me Information you added to the About section of your Timeline like relationships, work, education, where you live and more. It includes any updates or changes you made in the past and what is currently in the About section of your Timeline.
Account Status History The dates when your account was reactivated, deactivated, disabled or deleted.
Active Sessions All stored active sessions, including date, time, device, IP address, machine cookie and browser information.
Ads Clicked Dates, times and titles of ads clicked (limited retention period).
Address Your current address or any past addresses you had on your account.
Ad Topics A list of topics that you may be targeted against based on your stated likes, interests and other data you put in your Timeline.
Alternate Name Any alternate names you have on your account (ex: a maiden name or a nickname).
Apps All of the apps you have added.
Birthday Visibility How your birthday appears on your Timeline.
Chat A history of the conversations you’ve had on Facebook Chat (a complete history is available directly from your messages inbox).
Check-ins The places you’ve checked into.
Connections The people who have liked your Page or Place, RSVPed to your event, installed your app or checked in to your advertised place within 24 hours of viewing or clicking on an ad or Sponsored Story.
Credit Cards If you make purchases on Facebook (ex: in apps) and have given Facebook your credit card number.
Currency Your preferred currency on Facebook. If you use Facebook Payments, this will be used to display prices and charge your credit cards.
Current City The city you added to the About section of your Timeline.
Date of Birth The date you added to Birthday in the About section of your Timeline.
Deleted Friends People you’ve removed as friends.
Education Any information you added to Education field in the About section of your Timeline.
Emails Email addresses added to your account (even those you may have removed).
Events Events you’ve joined or been invited to.
Facial Recognition Data A unique number based on a comparison of the photos you’re tagged in. We use this data to help others tag you in photos.
Family Friends you’ve indicated are family members.
Favorite Quotes Information you’ve added to the Favorite Quotes section of the About section of your Timeline.
Followers A list of people who follow you.
Following A list of people you follow.
Friend Requests Pending sent and received friend requests.
Friends A list of your friends.
Gender The gender you added to the About section of your Timeline.
Groups A list of groups you belong to on Facebook.
Hidden from News Feed Any friends, apps or pages you’ve hidden from your News Feed.
Hometown The place you added to hometown in the About section of your Timeline.
IP Addresses A list of IP addresses where you’ve logged into your Facebook account (won’t include all historical IP addresses as they are deleted according to a retention schedule).
Last Location The last location associated with an update.
Likes on Others’ Posts Posts, photos or other content you’ve liked.
Likes on Your Posts from others Likes on your own posts, photos or other content.
Likes on Other Sites Likes you’ve made on sites off of Facebook.
Linked Accounts A list of the accounts you’ve linked to your Facebook account
Locale The language you’ve selected to use Facebook in.
Logins IP address, date and time associated with logins to your Facebook account.
Logouts IP address, date and time associated with logouts from your Facebook account.
Messages Messages you’ve sent and received on Facebook. Note, if you’ve deleted a message it won’t be included in your download as it has been deleted from your account.
Name The name on your Facebook account.
Name Changes Any changes you’ve made to the original name you used when you signed up for Facebook.
Networks Networks (affiliations with schools or workplaces) that you belong to on Facebook.
Notes Any notes you’ve written and published to your account.
Notification Settings A list of all your notification preferences and whether you have email and text enabled or disabled for each.
Pages You Admin A list of pages you admin.
Pending Friend Requests Pending sent and received friend requests.
Phone Numbers Mobile phone numbers you’ve added to your account, including verified mobile numbers you’ve added for security purposes.
Photos Photos you’ve uploaded to your account.
Photos Metadata Any metadata that is transmitted with your uploaded photos.
Physical Tokens Badges you’ve added to your account.
Pokes A list of who’s poked you and who you’ve poked. Poke content from our mobile poke app is not included because it’s only available for a brief period of time. After the recipient has viewed the content it’s permanently deleted from our systems.
Political Views Any information you added to Political Views in the About section of Timeline.
Posts by You Anything you posted to your own Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates.
Posts by Others Anything posted to your Timeline by someone else, like wall posts or links shared on your Timeline by friends.
Posts to Others Anything you posted to someone else’s Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates.
Privacy Settings Your privacy settings.
Recent Activities Actions you’ve taken and interactions you’ve recently had.
Registration Date The date you joined Facebook.
Religious Views The current information you added to Religious Views in the About section of your Timeline.
Removed Friends People you’ve removed as friends.
Screen Names The screen names you’ve added to your account, and the service they’re associated with. You can also see if they’re hidden or visible on your account.
Searches Searches you’ve made on Facebook.
Shares Content (ex: a news article) you’ve shared with others on Facebook using the Share button or link.
Spoken Languages The languages you added to Spoken Languages in the About section of your Timeline.
Status Updates Any status updates you’ve posted.
Work Any current information you’ve added to Work in the About section of your Timeline.
Vanity URL Your Facebook URL (ex: username or vanity for your account).
Videos Videos you’ve posted to your Timeline.

Does it scare you that your information is out there for analysis? If so, you can delete your Facebook account, severely restrict your permissions, or revoke permissions for old apps and websites

But, most people don’t care. They think, ‘I’m too smart to be influenced by ads.’

Does it matter to you that this information is available for aggregate analysis and has been shown in studies and in practice to be effective for creating emotionally-charged political ads that can sway people and positions you don’t agree with? 

That might be a different story.

In the wake of revelations about ‘misuse’ of user information, the latent question of who actually owns Facebook data, and who can do what with it, lingers. Facebook? Facebook users? The public sphere?

Last year, a federal court rejected LinkedIn’s claim that unauthorized companies cannot scrape their public data on free speech grounds.

This free speech issue will boil as the 2020 election approaches. It’s going to get sticky. 

Expect Facebook, and other giants, to clamp down on publicly facing user data as negative press begins to affect their bottom line.

On the other hand, any clamp down on user data will inevitably throw up some hurdles for some advertisers. Facebook is going to have to figure out how to prevent ‘abuse’ of user data without crippling their cash cow.


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