Big data: Is the Cambridge Analytica episode an

anomaly or should we be wary?


April, 2018


  • Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have come under fire for their alleged involvement in the micro-targeting of voters using data harvested from users
  • Ex employee warns Facebook cannot be trusted with the responsibility of protecting users data
  • The use of micro-targeting is growing and beyond Cambridge Analytica there is serious concern about its influence in shaping elections and consequently harming the democratic process

“Serious questions are being asked of not only Facebook’s role in facilitating the micro-targeting of voters, but whether it is ethical to use data in this way in the first place”

In a political sense, big data refers to the combination of massive technological power and endlessly detailed voter information. When used in conjunction with sophisticated social media tools (i.e. the ability to curate and alter people’s news feeds), big data has the potential to cause massive ruptures in the political discourse and sway public opinion.

The alleged use of big data by Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US Presidential election has brought into question the integrity of democratic politics.

Cambridge Analytica is the firm allegedly behind the use of personal data from millions of Facebook users in an attempt to target voters with bespoke personalised political advertisements. According to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a data scientist who worked at Cambridge Analytica, the company harvested the data of 50 million Americans. Alongside Professor Alexandsr Kogan, a Cambridge University academic, the data was collected through the use of an app where users were paid to take a personality test and subsequently agreed for their data to be used for academic research. The reason the data of 50 million Americans may have been acquired was the app also collected data on users’ friends as well.

It is believed an algorithm was created to analyse Facebook profiles and when used with the large database of users it was possible to identify swing voters and craft political ads to help persuade them. Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist during the 2016 campaign, has refuted the claims made by Wylie. He said ‘psychographics’, referencing the personality profiles used to predict political beliefs, were not used during the Trump campaign.

Wylie’s claim rests on the belief that Cambridge Analytica and their affiliate Global Science Research was pivotal in breaching Facebook’s data protection policies. “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” Wylie said in regards to the ‘psychological warfare tool’ he was responsible for weaponizing.

The data breach, which Facebook denies took place, was supposedly in violation of Facebook’s ‘platform policy’. The policy allows data collected from Facebook users to be used to enhance user experience within the app. However, Cambridge Analytica and Global Science Research,  Professor Kogan’s company, are alleged to have used the data for advertising, a practice barred by the policy. Kogan maintains he did not do anything illegal and Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix claims the company did not use or have personal data from Facebook.

Part of the problem may come down to the lack of responsibility taken by Facebook to protect and manage user data according to ex Facebook employee Sandy Parakilas, a Platform Operations Manager responsible for policing data protection breaches. Mr Parakils warned Facebook cannot be trusted to manage the private information of individuals and that beyond Cambridge Analytica there is hundreds of millions of users that have had their information harvested by other companies. He believes users ‘didn’t read or understand’ the terms and conditions they were agreeing when using the platform and Facebook lacked the impetus to enforce mechanisms (e.g. audit external developers and their apps).

While the data breach relates to use of data from Facebook users in the US, the Electoral Commission have ramped up efforts to investigate the role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum. Elizabeth Dunham, Head of Information Commissioner’s Office who deal with data privacy issues, said “It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro-target voters.” In light of the allegations surrounding the unprecedented harvesting of user data, serious questions are being asked of not only Facebook’s role in facilitating the micro-targeting of voters, but whether it is ethical to use data in this way in the first place.

The use of micro-targeting is popular within marketing circles and has made the transition into mainstream politics with notable successes, including Obama’s 2012 Presidential campaign. The Obama campaign team were able to collate a database of individual voting records and political donation histories, along with readily available personal data.

Still, recently big data has come under fire for it’s potential to drive emotional decision-making in democratic politics. Rebekka Rumpel, Research Assistant at Chatham House, has spoken on the influence of misinformation in the 2017 Kenyan presidential election. Rumpel said “there were certainly a number of sites and campaign ads that were flagged by Kenyans and international organizations as using scaremongering tactics to win votes”. Kenya’s election was interesting because it suggested big data’s influence was growing due to the acceleration of internet usage. A report by Nigerian e-commerce platform Jumia found that 67 percent of Kenyans were internet users, in comparison to the African average of 18 percent. Big data is not only finding its way to influence Western democracy – as the digital divide smallens it is beginning to impact democratic politics on a global scale.

Despite the furore surrounding big data, it is important to evaluate whether uses for it such as psychographic profiling actually work. David Rand, a Yale professor who specialises in human behaviour, suggested Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of psychographics to understand the personality of Facebook users has “no compelling scientific evidence” as the approach they took was ineffective. In contrast, Chris Sumner, Research Director at the Online Privacy Foundation, undertook a experiment to see the effect of psychographic profiling and micro-targeting in elections. He found “that people behaved as we predicted they would. If you get the messages right they can be very powerful indeed”. Thus, the conflicting reports have demonstrated no substantial, irrefutable body of evidence for personality profiling influencing elections.

Identifying big data’s increasingly active role in politics, tighter controls and regulatory frameworks have been proposed to ensure technologies are designed and used in ways that are compatible with democratic values. Senator Mark Warner has suggested an Honest Ads Act to regulate online political advertising. The legislation would require companies to disclose how advertisements were targeted as well as how much the ads cost. Responses from tech companies like Google have focused on the restrictive nature of the proposals made. The belief from big tech is that they are best equipped to regulate and handle online election advertising to prevent illegitimate actors engaging in the political process. However, this may be a sign of a new policy taken by governments to be more proactive in regulating the tech industry.

Big data is nothing new. Yet, if the fear surrounding big data is to fade away into the distance, steps need to be taken to ensure there is greater transparency with how personal data is being used.


Written by Abdi Buwe. Edited by Keval Dattani.

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