Facebook is being hammered for allowing the data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire 50 million user profiles in the U.S., which it may or may not have used to help the Trump campaign. But the outrage misses the target: There’s nothing Cambridge Analytica could have done that Facebook itself doesn’t offer political clients.
Here, in a nutshell, is the CA scandal
. In 2014, Aleksandr Kogan, an academic of Russian origin at Cambridge University in the U.K., built a Facebook app that paid hundreds of thousands of users to take a psychological test. Apart from their test results, the users also shared the data of their Facebook friends with the app. Kogan sold the resulting database to CA, which Facebook considers
a violation of its policies: The app was not allowed to use the data for commercial purposes. Carol Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, writing for the U.K. publication Observer, quoted
former CA employee Christopher Wylie as saying the firm “broke Facebook” on behalf of Stephen Bannon, the ideologue and manager behind the Trump campaign.
It didn’t escape
keen observers that if the Trump campaign used Facebook user data harvested through an app, it did no more than Barack Obama’s 2012 data-heavy re-election campaign. It’s not documented exactly how Obama’s team gathered oodles of data on potential supporters, but a deep dive
into the tech side of that campaign by Sasha Issenberg mentioned how “‘targeted sharing’ protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade.” To do this, the protocols would need to use the same feature of the Facebook platform for developers, discontinued
in 2015, that allowed apps access to a user’s friends’ profiles — with the user’s consent, as Facebook invariably points out.