Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Cambridge Analytica Five Years Later
A look back at what this story was, demystifying some of the narrative around it and what impact it had on the debate around tech
Five years ago was easily one of the most stressful times of my life and career. Sixteen months earlier, Donald Trump had shocked the world by winning the 2016 election. Six months earlier, we had announced that we had found activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency on our platform. Four months earlier, the tech companies were called to testify to Congress for one of the first times. And, now, we were being told that the Guardian and New York Times were working on a story about a political ad firm Cambridge Analytica which claimed to have access to Facebook data that they could do behavioral targeting on.
I remember distinctly sitting in my living room the evening of March 16 when the first Facebook post went up that we were suspending Cambridge Analytica from the platform. The stories were published shortly thereafter, and the response was explosive. I didn’t sleep much that night. The next day I tried to go out for St. Patrick’s Day but was constantly on my phone. My friends tried to take my phone away to get my mind off it all, but I still had my Apple watch. My anxiety was through the roof. I didn’t sleep much for months as we tried to keep building out the civic integrity teams and the political and issue ad tools.
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Five years later, so much has changed, but so much hasn’t. The narrative of what Cambridge Analytica could and couldn’t do has taken on mythical proportions. For instance, the RNC and Trump campaign actually used a limited amount of Cambridge Analytica’s data.
The impact of this story is also mixed. Below is a blog post I wrote (and am cross-posting here) for the Bipartisan Policy Center with my colleague Collier recapping what led up to the Guardian and New York Times stories and what came after.
I highly encourage you to sign up to attend/watch an event we are doing on March 29, demystifying this story and discussing what its impact has been with myself, Alex Lundry of Tunnl, and Matthew Rosenberg - one of the New York Times reporters who worked on the story. Justin Hendrix of Tech Policy Press will moderate this panel.
One final note. I’ve started a paid version of this newsletter! If you aren’t a subscriber, consider upgrading to a paid subscription. For $5 a month or $50 a year, you will get exclusive content and full access to the archives.
History of the Cambridge Analytica Controversy
By Katie Harbath and Collier Fernekes
The Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded into the political class’s consciousness five years ago this week. The idea of political persuasion and data mining suddenly felt very close to every Facebook user, and the aftermath of the scandal included rethinking the ethics of data privacy and the growing impact of social media on electoral politics. Cambridge Analytica still impacts the digital democracy space today.
Anatomy of a Scandal
Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013. But the company’s ability to microtarget traces back to a 2010 Facebook rollout of open graph that included a new version of its API, which is a tool that allows one application to access the data or features of another. With the API, “developers could now see social connections between people, and see the connections people have based on their interests and likes.”
Some examples of how open graph was used include President Obama’s campaign, which built an app that would connect known Obama supporters to potential supporters. The idea was that these two groups of users–demonstrated supporters and potential ones–had something in common, such as being friends on Facebook or that they both liked a particular sports team. In a non-political context, apps like Farmville would use the API so people could see which of their friends were also playing their game and how users might interact while in the app.
The tool has other practical campaign applications as well. Aleksander Kogan, an academic at the University of Cambridge, used the tool to research Facebook users and determine what might influence their behavior. He eventually gave this data to Cambridge Analytica, a company that provided data-driven services to political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to use Facebook data for its clients to better target political messages to people that could be influenced, also known as “microtargeting.”
Facebook shut down access for new apps to this API in 2014, and the API access was fully shut down in 2015.
Breaking the Story
On March 17, 2018, the Guardian and New York Times broke the story about a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, saying that the company had utilized 50 million Facebook profiles to do their modeling. Facebook tried to pre-empt the stories by announcing it had suspended access to everything on Facebook for Cambridge Analytica and an affiliate organization - the SCL Group. They also took issue with the media calling it a “data breach,” given the information in question wasn’t hacked or stolen and was indeed provided through the API to developers with users’ consent.
A few days later, Facebook announced new measures to better protect people’s data. CEO Mark Zuckerberg also spoke to numerous media outlets about what happened and what the company was going to do to increase trust and safety. Zuckerberg outlined an investigation and full audit into apps that had access to large amounts of data before the platform was changed in 2015. He also introduced restrictions on developers’ access to data and a tool for users to see which apps they had given access to their data.
The fallout and response from governments, media, civil society, and others worldwide were swift. American and British officials immediately held hearings to question Facebook about what happened. The European Union, Canada, and Indian governments did as well.
Effects of the Scandal
In the years following, the scandal influenced legislative action worldwide, most notably the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act in the European Union. It sparked a conversation around the use of microtargeting for political ads. Some platforms, such as Twitter, decided to ban political ads all together; Google reduced the amount of targeting options; and Facebook gave people the ability to opt out of political ads. Facebook, Google, and other platforms created transparency tools so users could better see all of the ads that campaigns were running. Currently, in the EU, legislation that would severely limit the use of microtargeting for campaigns is moving through Parliament. There has also been a slew of litigation, most recently, Facebook settled a lawsuit on the matter for $725 million.
The Cambridge Analytica controversy profoundly impacted the world of data privacy, political campaigning, and social media. Governments worldwide enacted laws and regulations to protect consumers, and companies needed to adjust their practices in response. Facebook continues to take some steps to protect user data, but not without sacrifice. Some of these steps also hindered the ability for researchers to access data from the company for academic analysis, which could have some effects on transparency measures.
Want to Learn More?
BPC is convening a panel of top technology and political experts on March 29th to discuss if the countless studies, reports, hearings, laws, and products created in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica have made user data safer. Join Katie, Alex Lundry, the Co-Founder of Tunnl and Deep Root Analytics; Matthew Rosenberg, a Washington-based Correspondent for the New York Times who helped break the story; and, our moderator Justin Hendrix, the CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press.
How much progress has been made on privacy and political advertising?
What is the truth about what Cambridge Analytica claimed it could do versus reality?
What impact did the scandal have on making data more readily available for researchers?
Click here to register for the event, which will be held in person and virtually.
What I’m Reading
Note: I generated these summaries using ChatGPT.
CNBC: Generative AI and ChatGPT are booming but at an expensive price
CNBC reports on the booming market for generative AI, which is driving up prices for top talent in the field. The report highlights the high costs associated with hiring experts in generative AI, such as OpenAI's GPT-3.
WSJ: Ban on TikTok could hurt Democrats more than Republicans
The Wall Street Journal reports that a ban on TikTok could hurt Democrats more than Republicans. The story cites data showing that TikTok is more popular among younger voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Reuters: Meta-end news access for Canadians if online news act becomes law
Canadian lawmakers are considering a new online news act that would require social media platforms and search engines to compensate Canadian news outlets for featuring their content. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has threatened to stop allowing Canadian users to access news content on its platforms if the law is enacted.
The Atlantic: YouTube's Controversial New Content-Moderation Rules
YouTube recently updated its community guidelines to prohibit the posting of videos that promote misinformation about vaccines or spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. Some critics argue that this move could have negative consequences for free speech and that YouTube's moderation practices are inconsistent and opaque.
Fast Company: Women in leadership feel lonely and isolated
A new study from Harvard Business Review found that women in leadership positions often feel isolated and lack strong support networks. The study recommends that organizations take steps to address this issue, such as offering mentorship programs and creating spaces for female leaders to connect and share their experiences.
Rest of World: Tech's bad year: Global layoffs data
Rest of World reports on the decline in the global technology industry, with a focus on the large number of layoffs that have occurred in the past year, including those at tech giants like IBM, Intel, and Uber.
The Verge discusses Google's plans to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) features to its Workspace suite of apps, including Docs, Gmail, Slides, and Sheets. These features aim to improve efficiency and accuracy for users.
Reuters: Amazon targets 2024 launch of first Kuiper internet satellites
Amazon plans to launch a mix of offerings for its satellite internet plans and is eyeing its first customers by the end of 2024. The company has been working on a satellite internet service, code-named Project Kuiper, since 2019.
Wired covers Twitter's decision to restrict access to its data API, making it more expensive and difficult for third-party developers and smaller companies to access and use Twitter data.
Latin America Risk Report: Paraguay - Election outlook with six weeks to go
Paraguay’s election on April 30 is a toss-up. The current political and economic environment clearly plays against the incumbent Colorado Party (ANR) and its candidate Santiago Peña. President Abdo’s approval ratings are very low. There are internal party divisions and corruption scandals. The global and regional anti-incumbent environment have given victories to opposition parties in every fair presidential election since 2019.
Nature: New study suggests people are more likely to share negative news on social media
A new study published in the journal Nature suggests that people are more likely to share negative news on social media than positive news. The study analyzed over 6 million social media posts and found that negative news was shared more frequently than positive news.
Media Ownership Monitor: Study reveals the concentration of media ownership in Europe
A new study by Media Ownership Monitor has revealed the concentration of media ownership in Europe. The study found that a small number of companies control a significant portion of the media market in many European countries.
SXSW: Can Diplomacy Save the Internet?
A panel at the SXSW conference featured the nation’s top technology diplomat - Nathaniel Fick - and a former CIA officer-turned-Congressman - Will Hurd - in discussion to explore what U.S. leadership looks like in the digital domain, the roles of the private sector and civil society in protecting our shared future, and how more robust diplomacy can help restore a unified, trusted, and secure internet.
Red Flag Global: Report examines the impact of political ads regulation
Red Flag Global has published a report examining the impact of political ads regulation. The report analyzes the impact of recent changes to political ads regulations in several countries, including the UK, US, and Australia.
Morning Consult: The Voters Republicans Miss by Sticking to Fox News
Morning Consult analyzes the viewership demographics of major TV networks in the US, revealing that those with the highest ratings skew more Republican than Democratic.
Jason Steinhauer: Bringing the Humanities into the Digital Age
In this essay on Open, Jason Steinhauer discusses the importance of bringing humanities into the digital age and how technological advancements can assist in this effort.
Meta: CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces updates to year of efficiency
In a post on Facebook, Zuckerberg announces another round of layoffs and other updates to the company as it continues to try to be more efficient and slimmed down.
Medium: How we’re approaching AI-generated writing on Medium
Medium has published a blog post outlining its approach to AI-generated writing. The post details how the company plans to use AI to assist writers in creating content that is engaging and informative, without sacrificing authenticity or creativity.
March 29, 2023 - Bipartisan Policy Center: Demystifying the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Five Years Later
March 29, 2023 - Axios: What’s Next Summit
YouTube CEO Neal Mohan is speaking
Topics to keep an eye on:
YouTube Decision on Trump Reinstatement
Facebook 2020 election research
March 17, 2023: UCLA - Can American Democracy Survive the 2024 Elections?
March 23, 2023: TikTok CEO Congressional Hearing
March 23, 2023 - Dead line for companies to have to comply with Jordan subpoena
March 20 - 24, 2023: Mozilla Fest
March 29 - 30, 2023: Summit for Democracy
March 2023 - Antigua and Barbuda Election
March 2023 - Federated States of Micronesia Election
March 2023 - Guinea Bissau Election
April 30, 2023 - Benin Election
April 30, 2023 - Paraguay Election
April 2023 - Andorra Election
April 2023 - Finland Election
April 2023 - Montenegro Election
May 7, 2023 - Thailand Election
May 10 - 12, 2023 - All Things in Moderation Conference
May 15-16: Copenhagen Democracy Summit
June 5-9: RightsCon
June 24 - June 30: Aspen Ideas Festival
June 24, 2023 - Sierra Leone Election
June 25, 2023 - Guatemala Election
June 25, 2023 -Turkey Election
TBD June: DFR Lab 360/OS
July 11-13, 2023 - TrustCon
July 2023 - Cambodia Election
July 2023 - Timor-Leste Election
July 2023 - Zimbabwe Election
August 6, 2023 - Greece Election
August 2023 - Eswatini Election
August 2023 - First GOP Presidential Primary Debate
September 27-29, 2023: Athens Democracy Forum
TBD September: Atlantic Festival
TBD September: Unfinished Live
September 2023 - Mauritania Election
September 28-29, 2023 - Trust & Safety Research Conference
October 8 - 12: Internet Governance Forum - Japan
October 10, 2023 - Liberia Election
October 12, 2023 - Pakistan Election
October 14, 2023 - New Zealand Election
October 22, 2023 - Switzerland Election
October 2023 - Argentina Election
October 2023 - Luxembourg Election
October 2023 - Oman Election
November 12, 2023 - Poland Election
November 20, 2023 - Marshall Islands Election
November 29, 2023 - Ukraine Election
November 2023 - Bhutan Election
November 2023 - Gabon Election
November 2023 - Rwanda Election
December 10, 2023 - Spain Election
December 2023 - Bangladesh Election
December 2023 - Democratic Republic of the Congo Election
December 2023 - Togo Election
TBD - Belarus Election
TBD - Cuba Election
TBD - Equatorial Guinea Election
TBD - Guinea Election
TBD - Madagascar Election
TBD - Maldives Election
TBD - Myanmar Election
TBD - Singapore Election
TBD - South Sudan Election - (Unlikely to happen)
TBD - Turkmenistan Election
TBD - Tuvalu
TBD - Haiti
July 15-18, 2024 - Republican National Convention
Anchor Change is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.