In March 2018, The Observer and The New York Times revealed one of the most controversial stories of the internet age: data from millions of Facebook users had been used, without their consent, to inform political campaigns.
That data was harvested using a quiz app developed by data scientist Aleksandr Kogan, and used by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The app, thisisyourdigitallife, collected personal information on over 50 million individuals, including participants and users in each participants’ network.
Collected data points created psychographic user profiles to inform targeted voter marketing campaigns in the 2016 Presidential Election and Brexit.
The ensuing scandal is covered in last summer’s Netflix film The Great Hack. The film focuses on the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica and whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, the consulting firm’s former Business Development Director.
The Great Hack raises valid concerns about this new era of users’ data rights and privacy—but is there another side to this story, one that looks more broadly at the data analytics industry and consumer benefits? This article aims to address some questions that The Great Hack overlooked.
1. Are there any benefits to social media marketing?
It’s hard to walk away from The Great Hack without approaching social media more cautiously. The idea of targeted ads that reflect our lifestyles a little too accurately feels uncomfortable for many of us. But there are a number of benefits to social media marketing that we also take for granted.
Before social media networks flourished, and before the Internet was widely used, consumers had less power over products and services. If customers had complaints, their best option was to contact the company directly, and hope the issue would be heard and rectified. Social media opens up 2-way consumer dialogues in a public space, and forces companies to be more accountable.
Complaints or backlash against an organization, for example, are easily published on social media. This puts the balance of power on the consumers’ end, and creates greater social responsibility for the company. It’s no longer enough to have a useful product or service. Given the level of competition, consumers also want to see, on social platforms, that a company is accountable, trustworthy, and aligns with their values.
As personalized as ads may seem, social media marketing also gives consumers quick and easy access to content that is actually useful for them. Consumers are less likely to be spammed with irrelevant content, and have access to a wider range of options without extensive searching. Consumers need to consider losing these benefits at the expense of withholding all of their data from social media providers.
2. Are there worse companies than Cambridge Analytica?
The story arc and characters of Cambridge Analytica make for an interesting story—and left little room for discussion on what data privacy looks like across various industries. The film’s narrative focused heavily on Cambridge Analytica rather than looking at how data privacy is handled by other social media providers and non-social media companies.
We’re in an age where indiscriminate data use and monetizing is the norm. How many times have you consented to your data use and either not read the fine print, or have not been provided with adequate fine print, beyond Facebook? And how has that data been used?
The Great Hack also takes all of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing claims at face value without a critical look into the firm’s actual technical capabilities. Most of the information the film presents from Cambridge Analytica is their public-facing team (Nix and Kaiser) and their pitch deck—and it’s common for public presentation to over exaggerate the realities of a service’s technical ability and value propositions.
If there were any discrepancies between Cambridge Analytica’s sales rhetoric and the technology’s actual power, this is not explored in the film. Was Cambridge Analytica as effective in its mission as The Great Hack (or Cambridge Analytica itself) claims? And are there other organizations that could arguably be operating more dangerously?
3. What evidence is there that micro targeting sways voters?
If Cambridge Analytica was as effective in its mission as the film presents, what evidence is there to support this?
The film depicts the success of psychographics in Cruz’s campaign before that data was handed off to the Trump campaign. However, Cambridge Analytica’s work for Ted Cruz was hardly as effective as the firm itself claims; The Great Hack doesn’t mention that Cruz’s campaign director, Chris Wilson, dropped Cambridge Analytica after winning the Iowa caucus, a full three months before Cruz was out of the race. According to Wilson, “[Cambridge Analytica] market[ed] their usage more aggressively than others and made unsubstantiated campaigns regarding its effectiveness.” This suggests that microtargeting and psychographics, at least as far as Cambridge Analytica implemented them, aren’t necessarily reliable methods of influencing voters.
One of The Great Hack’s main points is that data collection interferes with democratic processes and sways voters in tragic directions. While this is an important issue, the film does not investigate how powerful micro-targeting and psychographics actually are at affecting individual decision-making.
Even though data points, such as Facebook likes, can predict user personality traits, there is little evidence to support that micro-targeting and psychographics are a major force in swaying electorates, according to political science and microtargeting experts: there are too many variables to know for sure, and the claim doesn’t give voters enough credit.
This isn’t to say that microtargeting and psychographics don’t matter—but it’s worth further studying their psychological effects to better understand their power in a democratic context.
4. Is all data collection unethical?
The Great Hack does a great job of convincing its audience that online data collection is one of the Internet age’s greatest evils—but is all data collection done to deceive the public and undermine democratic processes?
Much has been done in recent years to address data privacy. For example, GDPR has rewritten data privacy rules in Europe and the rest of the world to protect individual rights. Companies that don’t comply with GDPR regulations can now face major fines that scale based on a company’s revenue. In the United States, the California Consumer Privacy act, which aims to give consumers control over their data, comes into effect on January 1, 2020. These regulations have a huge impact on whether incidents like Cambridge Analytica happen in the future.
To compete in the global market, data companies, such as Echosec, have extensive acceptable use policies to comply with GDPR, Canadian and international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and acceptable use policies from data providers. Compliance and ethics are at the forefront of Echosec’s mission and product design.
Beyond digital advertising, data collection also has many uses in the public’s best interest. One of Echosec’s value propositions is to aggregate public social media data related to safety threats. For example, access to social media data in the event of an active shooter or extreme weather situation gives public safety officials important intel more quickly than news outlets.
If “no one bothered to read the terms and conditions” on social media platforms before watching The Great Hack, they are probably more inclined to after watching—and that can hardly be a bad thing. However, beyond cautioning audiences with their social media use, there are other valuable data privacy discussions that this story doesn’t address.
Yes, data is monetized and used indiscriminately, but data analytics also has user benefits, and is used by many data companies in the public’s best interest. We owe psychographics and microtargeting more analysis and empirical study to understand their power before portraying them as the reason politicians like Donald Trump are elected. The public also needs to be informed, not only about other companies like Cambridge Analytica, but about how legislation is changing to protect individual data rights worldwide.