Cambridge Analytica talks a big talk. “We can use ‘big data’ to understand exactly what messages each specific group within a target audience need to hear,” Alexander Nix, the organization’s chief executive, said at a marketing conference last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Documents circulated by SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, claimed to be “experts in measurable behavioral change.” The firm claimed its own methodology, “enables us to understand how people think and identify what it would take to change their mindsets and associated voting patterns.”
Online behaviour is indicative of a massive amount of information and it is perfectly possible to analyze Facebook activity to determine everything from health and character type, to political leanings and openness to vote. If the firm did obtain a thorough set of consumer information from Facebook, as has been reported, then it might have gotten exceptional insight to what makes people vote and how. “Facebook allowed them to combine different data sources in a way that allowed them to understand voters maybe better than voters themselves did,” states Dietram Scheufele, science communication scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Such understanding would allow for exact, targeted advertisements, which, of course, is precisely what Facebook sells its advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble. “Using Facebook words and likes, I can tell a lot about your political orientation, and hence show you an ad you’re likely to respond to (what’s your biggest concern: guns, gays, greens),” Lyle Ungar, a University of Pennsylvania professor who researches the psychology of social media use, writes in an email.
But following understanding the nuances of people and paying for exactly targeted advertising, do these ads change minds? It’s improbable. We’re not as manipulatable as Cambridge Analytica might love to think. “They showed in the 1940s that most campaign effects are really reinforcement effects,” he describes. Once somebody holds an opinion, they will buy into messages which encourage their preexisting perspective. But advertisements do not actually make us start thinking otherwise. After all, the early primaries could be determined by a relatively small number of voters, and mobilizing certain groups may have a critical effect. But, contrary to what Cambridge Analytica could imply, there is no exact and thorough science which indicates that in the event that you show specific adverts to specific character types at a particular period, then it will definitely have a potent impact. After all, Cambridge Analytica, hired by the Ted Cruz campaign, failed to make him president.
The research conducted by Cambridge Analytica can’t be replicated at a scientifically good fashion, states Scheufele, not least because both the information and calculations that it used are continuously changing. Facebook changes its algorithm consistently, and users leave and join all the time. “There’s little scientific research. There cannot be. If I wanted to replicate the kind of work that Cambridge Analytica claims to have, I wouldn’t be able to. The algorithms that led to their conclusions no longer exist. The data has changed, the population has changed and so on.”
No commendable academic paper would offer the basis for Cambridge Analytica’s hints that it relies on psychological techniques to convince people to vote for a specific candidate. Psychologists from the area have well-educated guesses concerning the particular papers the Cambridge Analytica scientists depended upon–and not one of them suggest that the amount of manipulation the data firm promised is possible.
Much of Cambridge Analytica’s work was tried by other political groups, notes Scheufele–such as Barack Obama. His 2012 campaign hired “predictive modeling and data mining scientists,” according to job advertisements, which read: “Modeling analysts are charged with predicting the behavior of the American electorate. These models will be instrumental in helping the campaign determine which voters to target for turnout and persuasion efforts, where to buy advertising and how to best approach digital media.” Obama’s team put advertisements inside video games during the 2008 election.
The fundamental idea behind targeting particular groups is very old: Proctor and Gamble sponsored the production of “soap operas,” states Scheufele, since the provider quite literally wanted to sell soap to some certain audiences–girls doing housework at home– and so created the shows to attract a particular demographic.
Cambridge Analytica—also Facebook itself—only takes this to another level. It knows about our social groups–that is critical, as social contagion has a huge influence on behaviour. “That’s why Google has forever tried to buy some social network that was actually successful,” states Scheufele. “They tried Orkut, they tried Google Plus, they bought Waze for a billion dollars even though they already had Google Maps. Why? Because they want not just data on me but on all the friends surrounding me because that allows me to target much more precisely my potential vulnerabilities.”
Social media has enabled advertisers to target people and learn more about people than ever before. “It’s the sociology and the psychology together,” states Scheufele. “We’re no longer targeting segments, we’re targeting individuals.” But the psychological techniques used to affect us are neither as precise nor as strong as Cambridge Analytica supervisors have promised.