Over the past week we have been hearing how data from Facebook was used to potentially swing voters in the US elections and other campaigns by a firm called Cambridge Analytica. Facebook and Twitter have over the past decade become important platforms for any political campaign. But we now know that the use of these social media platforms is not limited to just airing rhetoric.
So how can data from Facebook potentially help in a political campaign?
Well, to start with, based on your interactions with Facebook over time, the platform has enough data about your likes and dislikes. It knows the kind of people you follow, the types of news sources you read and the range of actions and reactions these posts elicit from you. All these data points in combination are good enough to know your political affiliation, or a lack of such inclination.
How is this data used?
While none of us really use this, there is a Facebook ad preferences page that tells you how the social network sees you in reference to serving ads. It is not a perfect science at all, but based on your likes and dislikes Facebook lists the topics, people and interests which it thinks are good enough to push ads to you.
For instance, if you follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s page, ads that are targeted to those who have shown Narendra Modi as an interest will be served to you. In my case, these ranged from a tractor ad — just misplaced marketing — to a news story on Modi from a magazine to other politicians trying to cash in on the PM’s popularity. Often this promises a good conversion rate.
Is this the type of data used by Cambridge Analytica?
No. And this is where it gets interesting. Cambridge Analytica used data from an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ to gather information about users. The firm acquired the data from Aleksandr Kogan, who had created this quiz app to tap into personal profiles on Facebook. Given that this app was a personality quiz, the questions would have been designed to glean behaviour that gave away much more details on political leanings and other related aspects. This data would have given more granular details about what would be potential voters.
Also read: #DeleteFacebook…and go where?
So how can this data be used to target voters?
With ads of all kinds, Facebook allows a good degree of targeting. The more targeted a campaign, the lower its reach and the costlier it gets. Usually, the targeting is based on age, location and interests. But with the kind of data Cambridge Analytica had, they would have been able to target, let’s say, the 12 voters in Riverdale, Arkansas, who it gathered had not made up their minds on whom to vote for, but had a high probability of moving.
Or let’s say it could target the pro-Trump campaign to a set of people it was sure were disgruntled with the economic slowdown and resultant jobs. Pushing a certain kind of narrative to these voters over a period of time could certainly help them make up their minds.