On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths

 David Karpf at MediaWell: “…How many votes did Cambridge Analytica affect in the 2016 presidential election? How much of a difference did the company actually make?

Cambridge Analytica has become something of a Rorschach test among those who pay attention to digital disinformation and microtargeted propaganda. Some hail the company as a digital Svengali, harnessing the power of big data to reshape the behavior of the American electorate. Others suggest the company was peddling digital snake oil, with outlandish marketing claims that bore little resemblance to their mundane product.

One thing is certain: the company has become a household name, practically synonymous with disinformation and digital propaganda in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It has claimed credit for the surprising success of the Brexit referendum and for the Trump digital strategy. Journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr and Hannes Grasseger and Mikael Krogerus have published longform articles that dive into the “psychographic” breakthroughs that the company claims to have made. Cadwalladr also exposed the links between the company and a network of influential conservative donors and political operatives. Whistleblower Chris Wylie, who worked for a time as the company’s head of research, further detailed how it obtained a massive trove of Facebook data on tens of millions of American citizens, in violation of Facebook’s terms of service. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has been a driving force in the current “techlash,” and has been the topic of congressional hearings, documentaries, mass-market books, and scholarly articles.

The reasons for concern are numerous. The company’s own marketing materials boasted about radical breakthroughs in psychographic targeting—developing psychological profiles of every US voter so that political campaigns could tailor messages to exploit psychological vulnerabilities. Those marketing claims were paired with disturbing revelations about the company violating Facebook’s terms of service to scrape tens of millions of user profiles, which were then compiled into a broader database of US voters. Cambridge Analytica behaved unethically. It either broke a lot of laws or demonstrated that old laws needed updating. When the company shut down, no one seemed to shed a tear.

But what is less clear is just how different Cambridge Analytica’s product actually was from the type of microtargeted digital advertisements that every other US electoral campaign uses. Many of the most prominent researchers warning the public about how Cambridge Analytica uses our digital exhaust to “hack our brains” are marketing professors, more accustomed to studying the impact of advertising in commerce than in elections. The political science research community has been far more skeptical. An investigation from Nature magazine documented that the evidence of Cambridge Analytica’s independent impact on voter behavior is basically nonexistent (Gibney 2018). There is no evidence that psychographic targeting actually works at the scale of the American electorate, and there is also no evidence that Cambridge Analytica in fact deployed psychographic models while working for the Trump campaign. The company clearly broke Facebook’s terms of service in acquiring its massive Facebook dataset. But it is not clear that the massive dataset made much of a difference.

At issue in the Cambridge Analytica case are two baseline assumptions about political persuasion in elections. First, what should be our point of comparison for digital propaganda in elections? Second, how does political persuasion in elections compare to persuasion in commercial arenas and marketing in general?…(More)”.