What Happened at Facebook?
In order to understand how Facebook was used to influence global politics, it’s important to understand Facebook.
Before we get started, this is not a political post, and I will be trying my absolute hardest to keep my political views out of it. This also is not a hit-piece on Facebook. Their algorithm worked as it was built; I’m just writing to what happened.
Facebook’s mission is to “Connect the world.” They’re also a publicly traded company that must post profits. So, if your mission is to connect the world but you need to show a profit, you need a service free to users. Economics barriers of even $0.01 do not connect the world because it makes the service exclusive. In order to post a profit, you need advertisers.
Facebook’s News Feed is run by AI. We define an AI as a computer that makes decisions for itself to accomplish an objective.
Facebook’s AI’s objective was to keep you on the site as long as possible. The more scrolling through your feed you do, the more “connected” you are to the world, and the more ads they show you.
Most people naturally put themselves in a thought bubble with ideology you agree. Unless their thing is hate-watching the news, if they’re a Democrat, they probably won’t watch Sean Hannity too long. If they’re a Republican, they probably won’t watch Rachel Maddow too long. We don’t like giving time to ideas we disagree with; it’s human nature.
Now let’s scale that thought bubble to Facebook. The AI’s objective is to keep you on the newsfeed as long as possible. Does it make sense to show Person X, a Republican, a clip of Rachel Maddow followed by a post about how great Hillary Clinton is followed by that viral video of then-President Obama ordering ice cream with then-Vice President Joe Biden? Probably not.
How did Facebook know Person X is a Republican?
Profiling. What Facebook is best at.
Facebook must be best at profiling. By profiling, it shows Person X relevant ads.
Let’s break down Person X:
Cis-female, mid-30s, married more than 5 years (which we know from anniversary posts)2 kids (which we know from her pictures)Christian (which we know from her user-entered data when she set up her profile, also a child’s first communion)Upper-middle class (which we know from her use of the latest iPhone, plus pictures of the inside of her home showcasing it’s upscale)Lives in Iowa (which we know from location data)
Notice, we have not, so far, used any data to profile her as a Republican.
I should say, Person X is a Republican because both the Cruz and Trump 2016 Presidential Campaigns hired Cambridge Analytica to run targeted ads toward Republicans and independents to lean Republican. A similar example could be done with Democrats.
You could profile Person X to sell ads for home decor (Kirklands), religious videos and books (Joel Osteen), exercise equipment (Peloton), school supplies, video streaming services, makeup, coffee, and hundreds of other categories through best-guesses but also what other women of her demographic most often pause or click on. Person X isn’t the only person of her demographic. She’s part of a large demographic of Iowa professionals who have young families in conventional upper-middle class households. When you cross-reference her with all the other women from her demographic, ads get even more targeted because Facebook’s margins are higher when she clicks on an ad.
Facebook doesn’t only use the data you give them. They use the data everyone like you gives them.
To recap, Facebook’s mission is to “Connect the world.” They do that and make a profit by keeping you on your News Feed as long as possible. That puts you in a thought bubble which they created by profiling you and combining the data you give them with all of the data everyone like you gives them to show you the most relevant ads and content possible.
So how was the election influenced? Welcome to the Facebook Graph API.
Think of an API as a waiter between your table and the kitchen. They carry information and food, but don’t ask for food, eat the foot or make the food. They just are the person carrying information.
Whenever you “Login with Facebook,” a link is created between that service and Facebook. Facebook gives the service some of your data and in-exchange gets some data from the service. Many, many services offer the “Login with Facebook” option, and most people use it to avoid creating a new password. Then, the service can basically get whatever info it wants from Facebook about you, specifically.
So, a “What Princess Are You?” quiz starts going viral on Person X’s feed. Person X wants to see if she’s Jasmine, Ariel, Elsa or Moana, so she decides to take the quiz. First, she must login with Facebook. In the process, she gives away her public profile, status updates, and friends list.
She takes the quiz and shares it.
All of the sudden, she starts seeing ads about how President Ted Cruz would protect her and her family from “unconstitutional gun control.” Come the Iowa caucuses, she was going to vote for Marco Rubio, but her gut says he’s not strong enough on gun control. She votes for Ted Cruz.
How did the Cruz campaign and Cambridge Analytica do it?
From the Princess Quiz, they got tons of data on Great Plains women matching Person X’s demographic data (age, marital status, sexual orientation, number of children, socioeconomic status, location) and combined that with internal, issues-based polling. In the case of the Cruz campaign, they knew that if they moved Person X just slightly to the right on gun control, she would vote for Ted Cruz.
It worked. Ted Cruz went from having about 3% support in the 2016 Republican primary to coming in second place.
Looking forward, does Facebook sacrifice its mission to “Connect the world” by changing the AI’s objective to remove you from your thought bubble, shortening your time on the site? Does it sacrifice its profits in the process? Does it offer less-targeted advertising? Does it change nothing and hope they can better educate the public? I’m not sure if Facebook knows.
Was it Facebook’s fault that Cambridge Analytica had the success it did? Yes. It was designed that way.