Data firm Cambridge Analytica is at the center of a massive controversy for compiling voter profiles on millions of Facebook users and then using those profiles to help President Trump's 2016 campaign advertise by micro-targeting them with ads geared toward their specific interests and personalities.
Democrats and members of the media have pounced, calling it the "weaponizing" of private information and calling for hearings on Capitol Hill and for Facebook to face new government regulation. So unprecedented was this invasion of privacy, they argue, that action simply must be taken.
Only this sort of data collection and voter profiling isn't unprecedented at all; President Obama's re-election campaign was doing it in 2012. And Democrats and the media loved it.
The Obama campaign had no need for a third party organization like Cambridge Analytica to collect their data, either. Facebook itself worked with the campaign to help it gather information about users.
Carol Davidsen, the director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, explained in a series of tweets:
According to Davidsen, Facebook itself realized what Team Obama was doing but "didn't stop us once they realized what we were doing" because "they were on our side."
That is a stunning admission and undercuts the hard-line stance Facebook has taken with Cambridge Analytica. Is Facebook only upset about data mining now because it was done by a firm working for one of Facebook's political enemies? Facebook obviously had no problem with such activity when a political ally was engaging in it.
And neither did the media. Forbes notes that "The New York Times praised the Obama campaign as 'digital masterminds' and lauded their 'unorthodox' approaches" to advertising and voter targeting. Time Magazine predicted that this approach would "transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future."
In 2013, The New York Times explained what the Obama campaign did (with Facebook's explicit approval):
They started with a list that grew to a million people who had signed into the campaign Web site through Facebook. When people opted to do so, they were met with a prompt asking to grant the campaign permission to scan their Facebook friends lists, their photos and other personal information. In another prompt, the campaign asked for access to the users’ Facebook news feeds, which 25 percent declined, [engineer Will] St. Clair said.
Once permission was granted, the campaign had access to millions of names and faces they could match against their lists of persuadable voters, potential donors, unregistered voters and so on. “It would take us 5 to 10 seconds to get a friends list and match it against the voter list,” St. Clair said. They found matches about 50 percent of the time, he said. But the campaign’s ultimate goal was to deputize the closest Obama-supporting friends of voters who were wavering in their affections for the president. “We would grab the top 50 you were most active with and then crawl their wall” to figure out who were most likely to be their real-life friends, not just casual Facebook acquaintances. St. Clair, a former high-school marching-band member who now wears a leather Diesel jacket, explained: “We asked to see photos but really we were looking for who were tagged in photos with you, which was a really great way to dredge up old college friends — and ex-girlfriends,” he said.
The campaign’s exhaustive use of Facebook triggered the site’s internal safeguards. “It was more like we blew through an alarm that their engineers hadn’t planned for or knew about,” said St. Clair, who had been working at a small firm in Chicago and joined the campaign at the suggestion of a friend. “They’d sigh and say, ‘You can do this as long as you stop doing it on Nov. 7.’ ”
November 7th, of course, was the day after the 2012 presidential election. Facebook was allowing Team Obama to mine data so long as that data would be used in service to political ends of which Facebook approved.
In 2016, Cambridge Analytica employed what appears to be a nearly identical system of data mining and voter targeting in service of two political movements--the Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns--of which Facebook disapproves, and now Facebook is feigning outrage.
So too are Democrats and media members condemning the exact same behavior they spent much of the 2012 election cycle applauding.