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Cambridge Analytica: A Danger to Democracy?

 4 min read / 

Social media has become a significant part of election campaigns. Candidates and parties can interact more directly with those they wish to woo on these platforms. With this rising importance though come bad faith actors. Russian troll farms are accused of stoking passions and division among US and British voters. Fake news is being spread at a rate far too fast for the truth to combat. And Cambridge Analytica (CA) took users’ data and used psychographic profiles of them to manipulate them into voting a certain way.

A New Era of Political Advertising

Political advertising has been around for as long as politics has been. Voters are petitioned from every side during an election. Vote for this candidate for lower taxes, this one for better government services, and so on. CA provided detailed voter profiles based on their Facebook information, but how is this different and any more sinister than a party political broadcast or attack ad on television?

Previously, ads were based on demographic data. Demographics were determined and targeted based on age, income level, education attainment, the likelihood a household would contain children and so forth. A voter was targeted based on averages and abstractions. CA created psychographic profiles that took a person’s attitude and personality into account, which would allow them to target people based not just on the issues they cared about, but in a way which was more likely to get a reaction out of them.

What They Did

CA got access to the personal data of an estimated 87m people, though only several hundred thousand consented to their data being collected. CA could acquire data on such a large number of people because the app they used to scrape the information from Facebook, thisisyourdigitallife, also got data from the friends of those who used it. Once the revelation became public knowledge, Facebook acted quickly to make sure this could not happen again. However, severe criticism was levelled at the company over its use and protection of their users’ data.

Living in the modern world, we are surrounded and bombarded by adverts wherever we go. Going to work on the metro or the bus, listening to the radio in your car, or even walking down the street people see or hear commercials everywhere. Ads are becoming less effective because of their ubiquity. Traditional advertising, party political broadcasts or flyers, approach people in good faith. They are clothed fully in the garb of an ad, and people understand them as such. People have developed a tolerance and psychological barriers that mostly block them out, ads just become part of the world and are as noticed as the street furniture such as bins, benches and bus stops voters encounter on every street. What CA did was try to get around our critical faculties. It was an act of trickery, of manipulation.

Are Our Thoughts Our Own?

CA undermined the methods people have that reclaim power over their attention and intentions. It used trickery and underhandedness to make a person’s thoughts not their own. Approached in a way that was not seen as advertising people could not engage their critical faculties and they lost the chance to act as a rational constituent weighing up their political choices in an obvious and well thought through manner.

This is why what CA did was so sinister. It undermined a population’s right to engage in political debate and substituted unthinking reaction in its stead. It spoke of a candidate or platform which one would not usually vote for and replaced nuance and good faith political debate with deception.

What Must Be Done

CA’s tactics were not illegal, just immoral. Legislation to outlaw such an approach would be hard to craft. Either it would become too broad, banning more than it should, or too narrow and easily sidestepped. Regulation, like GDPR, does still have its place, and people should be aware of who has data on them, and what they will use it for. However, people need to realise that they are being pandered to, and need to develop the barriers similar to those that stop them being overwhelmed with the urge to purchase every little thing they see advertised around them every day. It is only in the reaction people have to the CA news that will help solve the problem.

CA has shut down now, though the key members have set up a similar company called Emerdata. Psychographic profiling and targeting will not go away. What must change is how people interact and view this new kind of political advertising.

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