What You Need To Know About The Cambridge Analytica Controversy

By Lauren Haan on April 10, 2018

What Happened?

Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm that combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication in order to influence voters in elections. It was founded in 2014 and grew out of the London-based SCL Group with a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer who is an American hedge-fund manager and a supporter of politically conservative causes. The firm took credit for President Trump’s 2016 victory and has recently come under scrutiny for its unethical practices.

In March 2018, news broke that in 2014, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Americans’ Facebook accounts. The information was used to create psychological profiles that were then sold to political campaigns. This is the largest leak in Facebook history and lawmakers are demanding that Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, testify before Congress.

via Pixabay

Facebook maintains that they had no idea this was going on and that Cambridge paid them to collect data for academic purposes. However, what Cambridge Analytica did was analyze peoples’ Facebook pages to see what they liked in order to identify personality traits that were then combined with algorithms created to predict peoples’ political views. For example, if you liked something posted by Kim Kardashian West, researchers used that information to identify your personality traits, such as how extroverted you are, how conscientious and how open-minded you are. That data combined with information about other interests indicated on Facebook can be plugged into their algorithm in order to predict your political views so campaigns can target you with advertisements more effectively.

Cambridge Analytica adapted this approach of personality modeling from studies done by researchers at Stanford University and the Psychometrics Center at the University of Cambridge. The studies relied on data collected by a Facebook app called myPersonality which was a quiz developed to assess a person’s openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. When respondents took the quiz, they authorized researchers to gain access to their profile data and information about their friend network. Researchers were then able to cross-reference the results of the quiz with the users’ likes on Facebook and build a model from the correlations. Once patterns were found, researchers could make accurate guesses about users’ personalities without the help of the quiz.

How does this tie in with President Trump?

President Trump recently named John Bolton as his third national security adviser. John Bolton has been heavily involved in politics throughout his career and ran a super PAC during the 2016 election. Super PACs are independent committees that raise money for political campaigns. They can raise unlimited amounts and are virtually unregulated since they are not directly affiliated with a party or person.

According to Cambridge Analytica’s company documents and employees, Bolton’s super PAC was one of their first customers. Cambridge Analytica was hired by Bolton to specifically develop psychological profiles of voters from data collected off of Facebook. While this was also going on, Robert Mercer was financially supporting Bolton’s super PAC and donated $5 million between April 2014 and September 2016.

Why should you care?

Whether you support President Trump or not, it’s important to be aware that his campaign hired a foreign firm to collect private information from Americans’ Facebook accounts. Cambridge Analytica was not authorized by Facebook or its users to collect the information it took and use it the way it was used. Legal investigations are going on currently in England as well as the United States to see if laws have been broken. It was reported that Cambridge Analytica board members did receive warnings from lawyers that it is illegal to employ foreigners in political campaigns. However, there might be a loophole since Cambridge Analytica does have ties with the Mercer family and Robert Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah is a board member. Whether it is determined if laws have been violated or not, what Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica did was unethical and unfair.

Hi, my name is Lauren and I am a senior at James Madison University. I love good food, the outdoors and my one year-old pup!

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