Facebook’s New Controversy Shows How Easily Online Political Ads Can Manipulate You
The questions surrounding the role of Facebook and other social media sites in the politics of our time have been coming at what feels like an accelerating pace. Reporting by the Observer, the Guardian and the New York Times in recent days has revealed that Cambridge Analytica — the social media monitoring firm that bragged it helped put Trump in the White House — had gained access before the election to the data of 50 million Facebook users through highly questionable means. Cambridge Analytica used to that data to create a tool of “psychological warfare” to manipulate American voters with targeted Facebook ads and social media campaigns. This news has painted the national discussion over social media’s impact on national politics in a stark new light. There was already a debate raging about how targeted digital ads and messages from campaigns, partisan propagandists and even Russian agents were sowing outrage and division in the U.S. electorate. Now it appears that Cambridge Analytica took it one step farther, using highly sensitive personal data taken from Facebook users without their knowledge to manipulate them into supporting Donald Trump. This scandal raises major questions about how this could have happened, how it can be stopped and whether the connection between data-driven ads and democracy is fundamentally toxic.
The bombshells are dropping so fast in this story about social media and the 2016 election, it is hard to keep up. Recall that just last week, Washington was aflutter over allegations from Brad Parscale, head of digital media strategy for President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run and the man who led the partnership with Cambridge Analytica, who tweeted on February 24 that his boss’ campaign had a massive advantage using Facebook advertising to reach voters. Parscale, who is now chief of Trump’s 2020 efforts, said his candidate’s Facebook ads were 100 or 200 times more cost-effective than those placed by the Clinton campaign for the presidency. Facebook quickly shared proprietary data illustrating that the two campaigns paid roughly the same aggregate sums to reach voters — and that the Trump campaign actually paid more on average than the Clinton campaign.
Now in light of the Cambridge Analytica headlines, it is clear that price of the advertising wasn’t the real story. The real story is about how personal data from social media is being used by companies to manipulate voters and distort democratic discourse. In this regard, it appears the Trump campaign had a decisive and ill-gotten advantage in the quest to exploit personal data to influence voters. And they used it to the hilt.
This is all very alarming. And as the days follow and the details are parsed about how this happened and who is to blame for malign social media advertising, we should not lose sight of a more basic question. As they stand, are the ways that social media sites use personal data to sell and publish political ads good for democracy in the first place?