Campaigns scoop up and manipulate information from social media just as companies selling products do. They analyze this data to determine how to craft and send voters messages for their candidates.
Psychographic profiling, as it’s called, can still trigger fear of Orwellian brainwashing even among those not easily given to paranoia.
But it is only the logical next step of a strategy that began decades ago when political operatives looked beyond voter rolls to ownership information to target mailings based on what people buy.
On Facebook, people reveal loads of information, some of it deeply personal. As a result, consultants have less need to infer your preferences on a civic issue from your ZIP code or the brand of your car in order to figure out what politics you love and hate.
The 2016 presidential race drew special attention to this topic because of Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining company partly owned by Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer, which made a controversial return to the news last week.
Mercer is a big Republican donor and champion of right-wing causes, whose daughter Rebekah Mercer was involved in the Ted Cruz campaign, then the Donald Trump campaign and then the presidential transition.
A new cloud formed over Cambridge Analytica on Monday when Britain’s Channel 4 released an undercover video in which the company’s CEO, Alexander Nix, appeared to make sleazy business offers to a journalist posing as a prospective client.
The firm, he says, could send a woman to seduce a rival candidate and videotape the encounter. Or, he could send someone posing as a developer to try to bribe the subject, among other deceptions.
Before that video emerged, the company’s internet data mining was already stirring international controversy.
On Friday, Facebook announced it was suspending the company over alleged violations of the giant social media site’s policies on protecting users’ information.
Facebook Vice President Paul Grewal said in a statement that a University of Cambridge psychology professor, Aleksandr Kogan, passed user data he obtained to third parties, including Cambridge.
Grewal indicated that the data were not destroyed, as Cambridge purportedly had told Facebook it had been, several years ago.
Cambridge Analytica denied it is in violation of Facebook’s use terms. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon served as vice president and secretary of Cambridge Analytica until he became manager of the New York real estate heir’s campaign.
To be sure, much of what’s under discussion preceded Trump’s rise as a candidate and nominee.
Just for perspective: It remains unclear what impact this research and the resulting propaganda really has. It is hard to believe crowds of citizens showed up for Trump rallies on Long Island to chant “build that wall” and “lock her up” solely because of digital sorcery.
The Facebook issue here is narrower than all that. It concerns the legal use of cutting-edge technology.
With some lawmakers calling for further probes into how Facebook guards private data, the full Cambridge story appears to remain in development.