Is Cambridge Analytica a threat to democracy?

Revelations that campaign consultants Cambridge Analytica obtained data on 50 million Facebook users has generated reams of coverage, much of it sensationally accusing the firm of using that data to influence the 2016 Presidential campaign in favour of Donald Trump. The idea that a shadowy shell corporation set up in Delaware could have a ‘pivotal’ role in one of the most important elections in modern history is a frightening one, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

First, it is useful to look at what happened. The New York Times and The Guardian report that academic Aleksandr Kogan built a personality profiling app that harvested data from users it paid to participate. Around 270,000 Facebook users took part initially. Crucially however, the app exploited Facebook’s lax data collection rules to garner information from friends of the initial participants. In total, the app reportedly collected data on around 50 million Facebook users. Kogan passed all of this information on to Cambridge Analytica, who allegedly used personality traits derived from the data to build profiles integral to its campaign targeting. Cambridge Analytica denies using the data in this way.

As far as actual wrongdoing is concerned, the central issue here is clearly the illicit collection of vast quantities of user data without explicit consent, for which Facebook must take the bulk of the blame. If Cambridge Analytica is found to have used the data in the way alleged by the media, then that should also be punished.

But alongside the data protection issues, some have expressed fears that the method of campaigning involving Cambridge Analytica in 2016 is a threat to democracy itself. In an interview for Channel 4 filmed in October 2017, Hillary Clinton spoke of ‘a massive propaganda effort to prevent people from thinking straight’ which ‘affected the thought processes of voters’.

This may well overstate the case. While Cambridge Analytica had access to data on 50 million Facebook users, the persuasive power of targeted adverts based on personality or ‘psychographic’ profiling is debatable at best and the Facebook data underpinning the profiling is by no means guaranteed to be reliable. Suggesting that Cambridge Analytica’s methods have an effect akin to mind-control does more for the company’s marketing than it does for democracy.

Additionally, beyond the illicit collection of data in this case, is there anything inherently wrong with targeted political advertising? Political campaigns have always been targeted; the use of data analytics just adds a new layer of sophistication to an existing practice. In the UK, the content of campaign material is only subject to light-touch regulation: ‘it is a matter for voters to decide on the basis of such material whether they consider it accurate or not’. The same logic applies to online advertising. The fact that the message appears on a digital platform rather than the side of a bus does not make it automatically any more persuasive or insidious.

Where the online aspect of political life is becoming a problem is the tendency towards user-curated echo chambers, which is facilitated by social media. Companies like Cambridge Analytica take advantage of this dynamic, but their method of campaigning is not the root cause of the problem: it is a symptom. It is difficult to see how governments can legislate against this growing trend without impinging on personal freedoms. Effort might well be better spent developing critical thinking skills through education, helping people to realise when they are being advertised to and equipping them to better judge a message on its merits.

As a story about data protection, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is huge and policy makers should demand better from corporations in control of personal data. Facebook in particular needs to do a better job. The political side of the story should not be overstated however. Cambridge Analytica does have questions to answer over its alleged use of immorally acquired data and the seedy tactics the company’s CEO suggested Cambridge Anlaytica could employ on behalf of its clients, but the idea the company could sway an entire election is fanciful.