faces what some are calling an "existential crisis" over revelations
that its user data fell into the hands of the Trump campaign. Whether or
not the attacks on the social media giant are justified, the fact is
that the Obama campaign used Facebook (FB)
data in the same way in 2012. But the reaction from the pundits and
press back then was, shall we say, somewhat different.
to various news accounts, a professor at Cambridge University built a
Facebook app around 2014 that involved a personality quiz. About 270,000
users of the app agreed to share some of their Facebook information, as
well as data from people on their friends list. As a result, tens of
millions ended up part of this data-mining operation.
firm Cambridge Analytica, which paid for the research, later worked with
the Trump campaign to help them target advertising campaigns on
Facebook, using the data they'd gathered on users.
while the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica during the primaries,
it didn't use the information during the general election campaign,
relying instead on voter data provided by the Republican National
Committee, according to CBS News. It reports that "the Trump
campaign had tested the RNC data, and it proved to be vastly more
accurate than Cambridge Analytica's."
this involves the Trump campaign, the news accounts have been suffused
with dark conspiratorial tones. The Times article talks about how Trump
consultants "exploited" Facebook data, and quotes a source calling it a
"scam." It has been widely described as a massive data breach.
Facebook had been promoting
itself to political parties looking for a new way to
was this the first time Facebook users had their data unwittingly shared
with a political campaign.
2012, the Obama campaign encouraged supporters to download an Obama 2012
Facebook app that, when activated, let the campaign collect Facebook
data both on users and their friends.
to a July 2012 MIT Technology Review article, when you installed the
app, "it said it would grab information about my friends: their birth
dates, locations, and 'likes.' "
campaign boasted that more than a million people downloaded the app,
which, given an average friend-list size of 190, means that as many as
190 million had at least some of their Facebook data vacuumed up by the
Obama campaign — without
their knowledge or consent.
anything, Facebook made it easy for Obama to do so. A former campaign
director, Carol Davidsen, tweeted that "Facebook was surprised we were
able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn't stop us once
they realized that was what we were doing."
Facebook treasure trove gave Obama an unprecedented ability to reach out
to nonsupporters. More important, the campaign could deliver carefully
targeted campaign messages disguised
as messages from friends to millions of
campaign readily admitted that this subtle deception was key to their
don't trust campaigns. They don't even trust media organizations," Teddy
Goff, the Obama campaign's digital director, said at the time. "Who do
they trust? Their friends."
to a Time magazine account just after Obama won re-election, "the team
blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to
share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a
effort was called a "game-changer" in the 2012 election, and the Obama
campaign boasted that it was "the most groundbreaking piece of
technology developed for the campaign."
only difference, as far as we can discern, between the two campaigns'
use of Facebook, is that in the case of Obama the users themselves
agreed to share their data with the Obama campaign, as well as that of
users that downloaded the Cambridge app, meanwhile, were only told that
the information would be used for academic purposes. Nor was the data to
be used for anything other than academic purposes.
an important distinction, to be sure, and Facebook is right to be
attacked for its inability to control how its user data were being
gathered and shopped around. (Facebook tightened its privacy rules on
data sharing apps in 2015.)
keep in mind that it wasn't the Trump campaign that solicited the
collection of the data. And, as we said, it didn't use the data in the
general election campaign.
in contrast, was collecting live data on active users right up until
Election Day, and at a scale that dwarfed anything the Trump campaign
important, the vast majority of people involved in these data-mining
operations had no idea they were participating. And in the case of
Obama, they had no way of knowing that the Obama campaign material
cluttering their feed wasn't really just political urgings from their
is one other big difference: how these revelations were received by
pundits and the press. In 2012, Obama was wildly celebrated in news
stories for his mastery of Big Data, and his genius at mining it to get
out the vote.
were told then about how the campaign "won the race for voter data,"
and how it "connected with young voters." His data analytics gurus
were treated as heroes.
is not to say that Facebo0k doesn't deserve criticism. Clearly, its
data-protection policies have been slipshod.
the recent fury exposes a massive double standard on the part of those
now raising hell.
Obama was exploiting Facebook users to help win re-election, it was an
act of political genius. When Trump attempted something similar, with
unclear results, it's a travesty of democracy and further evidence that
somehow he stole the election.