As news reports surfaced of Cambridge Analytica and the Donald Trump campaign, conservatives pointed to what seemed a double-standard.
On ABC’s The View, co-host Meghan McCain said former President Barack Obama was met with praise when he used similar Facebook data for his campaign, whereas Trump was met with outrage.
"It happened under Obama and it was lauded by the media as being genius," McCain said. "And now under the Trump campaign — it’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal."
"Was it the same thing?" co-host Joy Behar asked.
"Yeah," McCain said. "It was micro-targeting and data mining."
"I think it’s different, though," said co-host Sunny Hostin.
"It’s not different, though!" McCain exclaimed.
So, was it the same thing?
While the data the two campaigns had access to was largely the same, the way they accessed it, and for what purpose, was very different.
"She was making the point that the Obama re-election campaign used a similar tactic through Facebook to gain access to the personal information of millions of voters," ABC spokeswoman Lauri Hogan clarified.
Under the way Facebook allowed its apps to operate between 2010 and 2015, Obama’s 2012 re-election app and the survey app used by Cambridge Analytica had access not only to their users’ profiles but their friends’ list and their biographical information.
When the user approved it, these apps could access details such as users’ and their friends’ tags, likes and demographics.
Over a million people downloaded the Obama for America app. Around 300,000 people downloaded the personality survey app that ended up sending their data to Cambridge Analytica. The number of users’ data the firm reportedly gained access to (50 million) is much higher because it includes the users’ friends. The number of user data, it follows, was much higher for the Obama campaign, too.
The real divergence is in the way each campaign accessed the data.
The Obama campaign created a Facebook app for supporters to donate, learn of voting requirements, and find nearby houses to canvass. The app asked users’ permission to scan their photos, friends lists, and news feeds. Most users complied.
The people signing up knew the data they were handing over would be used to support a political campaign. Their friends, however, did not.
The people who downloaded the app used by Cambridge Analytica did not know their data would be used to aid any political campaigns. The app was billed as a personality quiz that would be used by Cambridge University researchers.
Aleksandr Kogan, one of the Cambridge researchers involved in the project, sold the data to the upstart political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The company then sold its services not only to the Trump campaign, but to the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz and the senatorial campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., among others.
When Facebook discovered a developer had shared users’ data without their consent in 2015, it asked both the original app and the consultancy to delete the data. That didn’t happen.
"The thing that is true is that every Facebook app you downloaded back then was getting access to your entire friends list," said David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "When tech people were trying to raise outrage about it they were being ignored. Now, everyone is outraged. But what (McCain) is wrong about this is that Kogan then sold it, and for a much creepier purpose."
Obama operatives used Facebook data to get users to send their messaging for them, according to Eitan Hersh, a Tufts professor who wrote Hacking the Electorate, a book on Obama’s microtargeting strategies.
Facebook friends lists, tags and photos allowed Obama operatives to identify a person’s close friends, which they then matched with offline public records. (Was this person likely to vote for Obama, but unlikely to get out to vote?) They then told the app users which of their friends they should send campaign messages to.
Cambridge Analytica dialed up what Karpf called the creepiness factor. They combined the survey results with the Facebook data to create psychological profiles they then sold to campaigns. The idea was, if the firm could discover how these people thought, they could target ads toward them.
Cambridge Analytica then sent targeted ads to the users on their database as well as users with similar profiles, identified by Facebook’s Lookalike tool. The friends of the app users weren’t being targeted by their friends, but by the campaign itself. In other words, the consenting middle man was gone.
In his research, Hersh found that neither tactic was greatly effective at persuading people to vote.
McCain said that there was a strong equivalence between how the Obama and Trump campaigns accessed user data on Facebook.
The Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica both gained access to huge amounts of information about Facebook users and their friends, and in neither case did the friends of app users consent.
But in Obama’s case, direct users knew they were handing over their data to a political campaign. In the Cambridge Analytica case, users only knew were taking a personality quiz for academic purposes.
The Obama campaign used the data to have their supporters contact their most persuadable friends. Cambridge Analytica targeted users, friends and lookalikes directly with digital ads.
Whereas the data gathering and the uses were very different, the data each campaign gained access to was similar. We rate this statement Half True.
Update, April 11, 2018: This story has been updated to include additional information about Facebook’s audience tool.