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Essay: Big data and social media influence on ‘big decisions’

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  • Subject area(s): Information technology essays
  • Reading time: 9 minutes
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  • Published: September 15, 2019*
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  • Words: 2,720 (approx)
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  • Big data and social media influence on 'big decisions'
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When we spend much of our time reading up on what is going on in the world on social media sites, should we be questioning our big decisions such as voting in our next President? How much influence do these social media sites have in our everyday decision making? Now that the Cambridge Analytica and Russian scandal has been brought to light, Americans that voted in the previous election are questioning whether their vote was heavily influenced by false content that continually circulated their Facebook newsfeed. Back in 2013, Facebook, the world’s largest social media site, experienced a security breach that altered the world of politics. The details of the scandal are circulating news and have all of America in an uproar. How safe is our personal data on Facebook and how many decisions have been made through the manipulation of targeting tools? Sam Meredith, a digital reporter for CNBC, lays out a timeline of the data hijack and states that “the social media giant is at the center of an ongoing dispute over the alleged harvesting and use of personal data.” According to Meredith, Cambridge Analytica is right alongside Facebook in this media frenzy. It has been brought to our attention that the British political consulting firm collects data, studies it, and creates algorithms to predict the outcomes of political campaigns; we also know they had a big role in Trump’s campaign in the election of 2016. When Trump took the lead in the republican spot during the campaign, his team began to spend a lot of money on Facebook ads (Meredith). Cambridge Analytica unethically obtained Facebook user data to target and manipulate users with fake news from sources like Russia to sway voters towards Trump during the Presidential election which ultimately led to his position as the President of the United States.

A series of events, starting with Facebook users downloading a simple app in which personal data was collected and shared with a third party ultimately lead to the outcomes of the presidential election. This media scandal starts with Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, alongside the company that he formally directed, Global Science Research, created an app that would ask a series of questions that would analyze one physiologically. This app is called “thisisyourdigitallife” had initially paid those that downloaded it to take the test. According to Meredith’s timeline, the app was launched to Facebook users back in 2013 and he states that “Almost 300,000 users were thought to have been paid to take the psychological test”. Through the app, data from profiles of users that downloaded it were collected, as was its purpose, to be used for scientific research, is what Kogan originally had told Facebook. What the users didn’t know was that not only were their personal data being accessed and harvested but so was everyone they were connected to. It is now estimated that about 87 million user’s profiles were harvested through Kogan’s app and vast majority of those users had no idea that this happened.

Facebook changed its policy and rules when it came to app developers access to personal user data in 2014 to “ensure a third-party was not able to access a user’s friends’ data without gaining permission first.” (Meredith). Kogan ignored Facebook’s new policy or simply didn’t read the terms closely enough because he went on to share this obtained data with Cambridge Analytica. Justin Carissimo with CBS news states that Kogan was asked about these policies during an interview with “60 minutes” and he says that “he didn’t think obtaining the data for a political consulting firm was against Facebook’s rules.” According to Carissimo, Facebook stated that they didn’t find Kogan at fault for collected the data but that “he violated its policies by passing it to third parties.” as he had passed on the information to Cambridge Analytica. When Facebook had initially learned of the breach in their policy for user data security, they “sought to ban Kogan’s app” and both parties were asked to delete all data information that had been obtained and unethically shared (Meredith). At this time, Kogan and Cambridge Analytica went on to say they had deleted all data that was harvested through the app and that they never used it for anything pertaining to the political campaigning they soon became involved with going on in the United States. Though it seems as this was not so. A former employee of Cambridge Analytica stepped forward to tell the world of the firm’s actions and involvement in the Trump campaign and how they created their psychological tools and how it all leads back to the information gathered from Facebook profiles, among other sources. Christopher Wylie, the former director of research, interviews with Andy Davies of Channel 4 News in England and tells him about what they did with the data they had collected. Davies asked if “Cambridge Analytica lies in its political messaging…” and Wylie answers that “they knowingly misrepresent the truth in such a way that is conducive to their objective.” (Davies 12:25) The proof that Wylie has of this is that he was there and directed the analysis at the time (Davies). In conclusion, Kogan created an app that would collect millions of Facebook personal user data and lied to Facebook about its purpose of scientific research but instead shared this data with Cambridge Analytica, which was breaking Facebook’s rules, and, along with Cambridge Analytica, lied again by saying they both deleted the obtained information. Cambridge Analytica went on to work with U.S. politicians during the presidential election of 2016; using the data to create false news to target and persuade these Facebook users.

Donald Trump and his campaign were fully aware of the methodology that would be used by Cambridge Analytica and how working with the company would bring the election results they were looking for. Cambridge Analytica had been in the business of scrounging a political customer to try out their new software and the presidential election campaign of 2016 was in their sights. Incidentally Donald Trump was already winning over Americans in speeches from coast to coast by engaging in morally questionable tactics and catchy one liners, like “Lock her Up” Trump referring to Hillary Clinton. Visibly, Trump was willing to use any method at his disposal to lure in voters to the unlikely Billionaire candidate. According to a CNN news article by Sara Murray et al. the company Cambridge Analytica had been vying for a chance to work with a campaign and selling their type of technology with promises of it enhancing election results or so called political warfare. Cambridge Analytical was looking for the right person all over Washington trying to promote it to the highest bidder. The rumors of Washington inner circle were backed up by Murray et al. investigative journalism claiming that Cambridge Analytica was looking for a buyer for their new algorithm. Showing data that could target voters on Facebook and offering up the service to multiple campaigns. There was little interested in their type of “psychoanalytical” political trickery that then Cambridge chief executive Alexander Nix was selling in 2016 because it bordered on unethical. All declined Nix’s service except the Trump campaign (Murray et al.,2018). The Trump Camp jumped at the chance and hired Cambridge Analytica in 2016 under the guise that they had collected data to target the personalities of certain Facebook users and potential voters. Targeting voters on poll information and statistical data is nothing new for campaigns, but Cambridge Analytica promised a new technology driven political maneuver. A claim that Cambridge Analytica denies along with Donald Trump. Although mounting evidence begs to differ and people like Mathew Rosenberg and Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times are putting the pieces together. According to Rosenberg and Confessore and their employer The New York Times, research into the documented direct quotes from Cambridge Analytica employees like “Cambridge Analytica relied heavily on the breached data of Facebook to target people for the Trump campaign” the employee confesses in Rosenberg’s, Confessores article. The information Cambridge Analytica was using had been a strategic way to control the vote in America. A promise they made to investors like Robert Mercer who had put in his own money to the firm, 15 Million; along with Steve Brannon’s substantial investigate (Rosenberg, Confessore, 2018). Steve Bannon a trusted Trump adviser at the time of Cambridge Analytics contract with the Trump campaign. Steve Bannon’s involvement confirm the allegations are that Cambridge Analytica knowingly stole user data to help get then Presidential candidate Trump elected. That knowledge of profile data was surely with Steve Bannon when advising Mr. Trump on how to proceed with his campaign. Steve Bannon knew that this profile information from Cambridge Analytica was the perfect tool to move his agenda forward; towards the new Republican President.

Even though Cambridge Analytica denies using Facebook profiles to help the Trump Campaign the evidence is overwhelming. Investigations in Britain that have been going on for more than a year now and the resent American investigations that are starting to connect this data breach to the campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. Carole Cadwalladr who has been following what is happening in the Leave Brexit movement in the UK and now the Facebook scandal in the USA details many firsthand accounts of the motives of Cambridge Analytica. Former employees of the firm have been interviewed on both sides of the Atlantic and have incriminated Cambridge Analytica of gathering profiles on 240 million people worldwide in efforts of changing political outcomes here and abroad. During the Guardian and Observer yearlong investigation into the degree the firm played in these obdurate high-profile campaigns and the outcome. The name that sticks out is whistleblower Christopher Wylie. According to Cadwalladr Wylie worked at Cambridge Analytica in 2014 long before Trump set his sights on the 2016 election. In interviews with Cadwalladr and others Wylie has stated in so many words that Steve Bannon had made plans on upheaving the current political process in America with his own brand of Republican using the instrument that Wylie and others had created for Cambridge Analytica (Murray et al.) (Rosenberg, Confessore), (Cadwalladr). This evidence shows Steve Bannon wanted to use his new-found data to illicit and ultimately control the next US election in favor of a candidate that could sell his branded fake news. . Cambridge Analytica has reported that they deleted the harvested profile information long before the Brexit vote or the US election. But the evidence that has come forward so far has pointed to the fact that Donald Trump’s campaign absolutely used the psychological profiles collected by Cambridge Analytica to push fake news on social media. If the American people were indeed victims of information fraud that lead them to vote in such a way they wouldn’t have otherwise; is this technology driven voter fraud of the future? The question proposed challenges the legitimacy of the votes made in the 2016 election. As Donald Trump is further investigated for collusion with the Russian Government and how that ties into the data breach with Cambridge Analytica. As the details about the former Chief of Staff Steve Bannon and our sitting president Donald Trump come to light defining the details of conclusion with the Russian government and questionable legality of the tactics of Cambridge Analytica come to light. Concluding that the breached data used to further Trump in the polls and for political gain was furnished by Cambridge Analytica and aided by false Russian reporters contributing to the candidate’s agenda on Facebook.
As Cambridge Analytica and the Russian Government got involved in the presidential campaign, they secretly helped Trumps image by making fake news of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Jim Sciutto, Chief National Security Correspondent, states that Russia hackers first got into the email of the Clinton Campaign on March 19th, 2016 by emailing a rather innocent, yet harmful message to the former-chairmen of the campaign, John Podesta. This email told Podesta that his email was being compromised and that he needed to change his password immediately by clicking on the link provided (Sciutto). The email was signed by the Gmail team, making it look real and legit. Podesta’s assistance then emailed the cybersecurity team questioning the email, which through a few errors, they told her to continue and follow the directions throughout the email (Sciutto). According to Sciutto, the IT staff typed back the word “legitimate,” instead of the word “illegitimate” when referring to the email. After changing the password, the Russian hackers had an easy access into the email of John Podesta, the man who was running the campaign for Hillary Clinton (Sciutto). In June of 2016, many emails and documents taken from the Democratic computer system were out to the public. The emails showed the public that the leaders of the Democratic National Committee were bias (Sciutto). They favored Hillary Clinton and shunned Bernie Sanders. The chairwoman, Debbie Shultz then resigned, which was the first outcome the Russian hackers had caused (Sciutto). Therefore, with Russia getting involved with the presidential election, they started to circulate fake ads and news about Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton through social media.

Facebook was used throughout the presidential election to target social media users and persuade them in certain directions. With Facebook being used, the Russian government was able to make fake news and ads about the opponent, Hillary Clinton, placing them on millions of Facebook user’s timelines, swamping them with false political ads. There were about 3,000 fake ads spread on social media leading up to Election day (Snider). One ad by Russia was made by a fake group called, Army of Jesus. This was a picture of Jesus and Satan arm wrestling. According to Snider, the ad was trying to portray Clinton as Satan and Trump, not a Satan, but “an honest man who cares deeply for this country.” Those who were likely to see this ad recently liked posts about Ron Paul, God, Bible and Bill O’Reilly to name a few (Snider). According to Snider, there was also ads by Russia to stir up emotions in the U.S. For instance, there was an event created called “Not My President,” by Russia. This was an event created that people could attend in real life, gathering at New York’s Union Square on November, 12th protesting against Donald Trump running for president (Snider). This event targeted those ages 18-65 and who liked the Black Live Matters US page on Facebook. Snider also mentions how this ties into another event created by Russia called, “Down with Hillary.” This was a real-life event for those to gather and protest about Clinton running for president (Snider). The social media users who most likely have seen this event, liked Donald Trump’s page, Donald Trump Jr. or Donald Trump For President (Snider). However, as Russia was circulating fake news on social media outlets like Facebook, so was Cambridge Analytica.

Russia was not alone when creating fake news on the presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Cambridge Analytic, who was also involved, had their fair share in spreading false ads through social media. In a secretly filmed conversation with Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix and another staff member, they stated they made the slogan, “defeat crooked Hillary” (Graham-Harrison). Mark Turnbell, another executor for Cambridge Analytica, took the credit for the brand “Defeat Crooked Hillary,” organized by the political group, Make America Number 1 (Graham-Harrison). According to Graham-Harrison, Turnbell stated, “the zeros, the OO of crooked were a pair of handcuffs … We made hundreds of different kinds of creative, and we put it online,” when talking about the controversial campaign. Cambridge Analytica stated that they have never claimed to have won the election for Donald Trump (Graham-Harrison).

Furthermore, with fake ads popping up on Facebook user’s timelines, downgrading Clinton or stirring up emotions, without knowing their credibility, their opinions have easily been swayed. Many users on Facebook were being tracked on which pages they have liked by Russia and Cambridge Analytica, in return had fake ads showing up on their newsfeed.


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