This is such a weird news story. The true parts aren’t important and the important part isn’t true. Entrapping political opponents in discussions ofUkranian affairs is obviously bad but not uncommon in the netherworld of political consultancy (and here it is half-promised rather than delivered on).
As for the data stuff, well. Cambridge Analyticia breached Facebook’s rules, but what they’re doing – extrapolating voters’ psychological profiles from online behaviour – is a service Facebook sells to all advertisers. Whether Facebook should be allowed to do that is a good question, but not a new one. (Personally speaking I don’t care what Facebook does with the data it has on me, maybe I should, but when I read about people who have retrieved their Facebook data it never seems very impressive or very frightening.)
That this is such big news has a lot to do with the fact that much of the media, even as they hammer Cambridge Analytica for dishonesty, are eager to accept the company’s central deception – the claim that it can, by some obscure data-based voodoo, manipulate voters.
Here’s the thing about precision-data-driven-micro-psychographic-or-whatever targeting: it is basically bollocks. It doesn’t change minds. It doesn’t change votes. Sure, if you spend a ton of money on political ads, there may well be some effect, but that’s true whether you use billboards or online ads.
The stronger claim is that CA’s Facebook ads are superior to other forms of advertising because they are tailor-made to the psychology of individual voters. But we have no reason to believe this. The proposition that an advertiser has some special power of persuasion over me because it knows I conform to a vast, generalised trait like open-mindedness is inherently dubious. Academic studies have found online ads to have a near-zero effect on voters. As the Tory campaigner Mark Wallace points out, the black magic of micro-targeting, which supposedly swung the 2015 election to the Tories, suddenly became utterly ineffectual in 2017. (And as Ross Douthat says, the medium to blame for Trump is not Facebook, but TV.)
We have long had a fascination with the idea that advertisers are doing something secret, super-clever and devious to us (or rather, to other people – we arrived at our views independently; they are being duped), and when explaining election results, we prefer agency-based explanations (somebody did something) to structural ones (some underlying trends interacted with each other). The political scientist Rob Ford calls this “Wizard of Oz” thinking. After every electoral surprise, people look for the all-powerful wizard who made it happen, especially when the surprise is unwelcome.
Those of us on the wrong side of the 2016 US election or Brexit will go to amazing lengths to avoid the hard and uncomfortable work of thinking about why we lost, of trying to understand voters on the other side, of revising our mental models of the world. We’ll even take Alexander Nix at his word.