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Cambridge Analytica: meddling with elections and what this means for internet users

“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. That was the basis the entire company [Cambridge Analytica] was built on.”

Cambridge Analytica and US elections

I can say with absolute certainty that we have all heard the name Cambridge Analytica at least once or twice in the past year. After all, when Mark Zuckerberg testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee about Cambridge Analytica a little more than a year ago, a wide array of memes making fun of his alien-like disposition popped up on the internet. Before we delve any deeper, though, what is Cambridge Analytica’s history and how did this organisation come to be so disgraced?

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was a British political consulting firm founded in 2013 by its CEO Alexander Nix. Its goal was to find innovative strategies to help ensure that whoever had hired them would win their respective election. The company did so by harvesting data from a variety of sources, such as social media profiles, credit card statements, liked posts and web users' browser history.

How did Cambridge Analytica collect Facebook users’ data? It did so by using a Facebook app developed by a data scientist at Cambridge University titled “This Is Your Digital Life”. CA would then sent out informed consent forms to hundreds of thousands of Facebook users for their data. In the process, though, the company also acquired the personal information of all the Facebook users who were friends with the informed parties. In total, CA acquired the personal information of 87 million users, according to Facebook itself.

During the 2016 US election season, CA harvested data from millions of Facebook users in an attempt to personalise the ads that each voter was seeing on their screen. They believed that by catering ads to each voter, they would be more successful in making voters elect whoever was hiring the company in that specific election.

However successful CA’s strategy was, it undoubtedly lacked in ethics. An individual should be able to form their own political opinions without being influenced by third parties whose goal is to get a specific candidate elected. Political ads created with the help of CA were different than other political ads because CA employed strategies that would most likely sway a voter’s opinions, without necessarily providing truthful statements.

Our data rights

Can you see what the issue is in that? Facebook knowingly allowed a third party to harvest your data without even asking you for your permission. In this age especially, it is crucial that people recognise how due to all the technology around us, data rights should also be human rights. This access to users’ data is one of the reasons why tech companies such as Google or Facebook are so wealthy. Oil isn’t the world’s most valuable resource anymore, but data is. These companies make profit from using their users’ data for targeted advertising.

However, this hasn’t gone unnoticed; there are some people in power, such as California’s governor Gavin Newsom who are suggesting that individuals should be able to make a profit off of allowing companies access to their personal information. Shouldn’t we be allowed to decide whether a company has the right to use our data or not?

The European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that ensures that users must be obliged to consent to their data being handled by third parties. The GDPR works in a way that allows users to be in control of their own personal information. The GDPR also ensures that information about the use of their data is provided to individuals in a clear and concise way and that an individual also has the right to erase their personal information even after having consented to a company handling such information.

Cambridge Analytica and Brexit

It would be completely reasonable for you to wonder why this next section will be dedicated to Brexit. The outcome of but also the lead-up to Brexit has had monumental consequences, especially for us - the young people. I can still remember when I woke up and learned that, by a slim majority, voters in the UK had chosen to leave the EU.

There is evidence from one of CA’s top officials that the company did indeed work for the Leave.EU campaign that was headed at the time by UKIP’s former leader Nigel Farage. Even if the Cambridge Analytica–Leave.EU partnership didn’t last for long, “the data sets and analysed data processed by Cambridge Analytica were later used by the Leave.EU campaign without Cambridge Analytica’s further assistance” stated Brittany Kaiser, the former director of business development, now considered a whistle-blower in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Along with processing data for the Leave.EU campaign, CA was also responsible for helping the Leave.EU campaign by organising fundraisers in the US, even though foreign donations to British political campaigns are illegal. It was also reported that Robert Mercer, an American billionaire, donated CA’s data processing services to the Leave.EU campaign. In 2018, the British Electoral Commission found the Leave.EU campaign guilty of breaking electoral law by not disclosing the donations over£7,500 that they had received. It goes without being explicitly said that all these violations of electoral law were not committed by the Remain campaign.

What’s ahead?

What can we learn from this scandal moving forward? Most of us use the internet on a daily basis in order to pay bills or to just entertain ourselves for a bit. These last few years, with the influx of many social media platforms, we have made it a daily habit to share snippets of our everyday life with the people who follow us, regardless of whether we know them personally or not. There is a risk that comes along with whatever we choose to share online as the content we choose to share can determine what type of ads we will see online and, as discussed above, these ads may end up shifting our political perspectives and influencing who we choose to vote for.

Regarding CA’s involvement in the Brexit referendum as well as its harvesting of Facebook data without users’ consent, one needs to realise how fragile elections are at this point in time and how fragile democracy is. Elections shouldn’t be undermined by interests of third parties such as Cambridge Analytica and other data processing firms; yet we are witnessing this happen first-hand and must take a stand against this. There has been evidence of CA’s meddling exploiting ethnic tensions in countries such as Kenya. This was revealed by Alexander Nix who boast that in the Kenyan elections he had “rebranded [an] entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys…Then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing. So just about every element of their campaign”.

As I am writing this article, I am realising that we live in a very politically volatile time as the US presidential and congressional elections are approaching, and there is a chance that some data processing company is already working for a certain political party or foreign state to propel their own interests. As of late though, Twitter announced that it would be banning political ads from its websites. Google also announced that it would not allow ads that targeted individuals based on their political preferences to be circulated. It seems that this ban is in response to what has happened in the past 4 years due to the activities of companies such as CA. This goes to show that after the CA scandal that came to light following the 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum, individuals holding significant political and economic clout have realised that action must be taken against what CA and foreign countries have been doing to elections worldwide.

Tip: To learn more about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I recommend watching the Great Hack on Netflix.

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