Facebook made a weapon

How Cambridge Analytica weaponized Facebook’s tools and psychological studies to sway an election.

Facebook made a weapon

If you're like me, you might be under the impression that the Cambridge Analytica (C.A.) scandal involved a Facebook data breach; that our private information was stolen by shadowy figures in black hoodies. By men with an affinity for techno music and Monster Energy drinks. Men who whisper things like "we're in," as a waterfall of green gibberish reflects down their dark Oakley sunglasses.

We may be under the impression that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a hack because that's how it was framed. Everything from a Netflix documentary to the 2018 Congressional hearing used language implying that C.A. stole our personal information.

Here's a quote by U.S. Senator, and dying Skeksis, Bill Nelson (D) at the 2018 Zuckerberg Congressional hearing:

We're talking about personally identifiable information that, if not kept by the social media companies from theft, a value that we have in America, being our personal privacy — we won't have it anymore.

Neat. Here's another quote, from a slightly younger, but still very, very old, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D) at that same hearing:

Facebook allowed a foreign company to steal private information. They allowed a foreign company to steal private information from tens of millions of Americans
Mr. Facebook, we have questions.
Mr. Facebook, we have questions.

In reality, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook's open and available tools to harvest the personal data of 87 million Americans— door open, welcome sign lit. C.A. then used that data to exploit our most vulnerable neuroses.

Behavioral Psychology + Big Data + Targeted Engagement = Behavior Change
— Cambridge Analytica pitch deck

While the actual facts of the scandal may help clear up some misconceptions created in part by a geriatric U.S. Congress, none of it is exactly new information. Journalists have exhaustively written about everything I just told you. Where the story gets hazy, and what I hope to clear up, is the part where Facebook helped Cambridge Analytica, directly and indirectly, from as far back as 2010.

In this article, I will show how Facebook paved the way for Cambridge Analytica to not only harvest the data from millions of Americans but to weaponize that data using a highly sophisticated psychological model capable of manipulating people without their consent.

Before I go on, I think it's important to say that this article is not about Donald Trump. Nor is this an argument that Conservatives stole the 2016 election. You may not know me personally, so I will come clean now and say I have no problem expressing my disdain for Trump to a large audience. But that's not what I'm writing about today. This article is about Facebook. I feel it's important to mention because what's happening goes far past partisan politics, and it would be a shame if you stopped reading this article because you're a conservative and you sense an ambush. That's not what this is— Scout's honor.

Image Memory Glasses

Donnie Darko is a cult classic movie. I love it. You love it. Let's start there. A particular scene towards the end of the first act popped into my brain while writing this article. Perhaps you remember it:

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) stand in front of the classroom to present their made-up invention called the Infant Memory Generator. In the scene, they describe a pair of glasses that could, in theory, display a slideshow of pleasant images to a sleeping baby.

You can instantly feel the tension in the room. The teacher (Noah Wyle) is visibly upset by the idea and asks his students whether they considered that a baby needs darkness to sleep. The two school bullies (Alex Greenwald and Seth Rogan) immediately raise their hands. "What if the parents put in pictures of satan?" one asked. "Or, like, dead people? Crap like that."

The implication here, realized by everyone in the room except Donnie Darko and Gretchen, is that their invention could have the power to affect a baby's mood and behavior in unpredictable ways. In the wrong hands, such a device could be dangerous.

Gretchen then replies to the bully, "Is that what you'd show your kids?"

Donnie Darko— Image Memory Glasses (IMG)
Donnie Darko— Image Memory Glasses (IMG)

The dawn of emotional engineering

In 2010, Facebook released a public study that showed off its ability to affect voter turnouts. You may be thinking, like me— wow, that sounds difficult to do. Well, it wasn't anything that a graphic designer with access to our newsfeeds couldn't achieve.

Facebook injected a banner into the newsfeeds of a subset of Facebook users. The banner had a pro-voting message, a link to find your nearest polling location, and the profile picture of friends who had already voted. A second group received a banner with a more generic pro-voting message, without the polling link or social encouragement. Everyone else saw no banner at all.

Here are the results, reported by The New Statesmen in their 2014 article: Facebook could decide an election without anyone ever finding out

The researchers concluded that their Facebook graphic directly mobilized 60,000 voters and, thanks to the ripple effect, ultimately caused an additional 340,000 votes to be cast that day.

For context, George W. Bush won Florida, thus the presidency, by a little over 500 votes. Donald Trump won by 80,000 votes in three states. Razor-thin margins in this country win presidential elections. Facebook, it seems, has the power to sway close democratic elections in whichever direction, at the flip of a digital switch, if they so choose.

In 2012, Facebook set out to answer another question— can we fuck with peoples' moods by changing what they see on their newsfeeds? The answer, revealed in a study released publicly two years later to major ethical concerns and mild internet outrage, was, yeah, you can. In fact, not only can you change a person's mood, but that person could, through their own posts, affect the moods of their unwitting Facebook friends.

The study also showed that users wrote longer posts after negative or positive content was injected into their Newsfeeds. The opposite was true when their feeds became closer to neutral— they wrote posts with fewer words and were less likely to affect their friends moods. In short, the study determined if you can change a person's mood, you can also change their behavior.

The holy grail of communications is when you can start to change behavior.
— Cambridge Analytica

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

Those two studies acted as blueprints, of sorts, for manipulating Facebook's own user base on a large scale, without any of the users’ consent. Why Zuckerberg thought sharing this information with the general public would be a good idea, I'm sure I do not know. Perhaps, this would not have been such a big deal if Facebook had kept our data a bit more guarded. Instead, Zuckerberg did the opposite and provided app developers with a large, injudicious flow of precisely the type of data needed to recreate the scenarios outlined in the published studies.

In 2010, Facebook announced a new API called Open Graph. (An API is a way for applications to summon specific pieces of data from other applications.) Facebook pitched Open Graph as a way for developers to implement Facebook features—things like commenting ability, the Facebook Like button, and Facebook Login— into third-party apps. Open Graph also gave app developers generous access to the treasure trove of user data Facebook had amassed over the years.

Mark Zuckerberg unveiling Open Graph
Mark Zuckerberg unveiling Open Graph

One popular method for opening the data spigot was to use Facebook Login as a primary or exclusive method for signing into a third-party app. Cambridge Analytica used this exact method. It's worth noting that the term "Open Graph" was not uttered once by a U.S. Senator during the 2018 Facebook Congressional hearings. Not a single fucking time.

Now, Zuckerberg called the Cambridge Analytica scandal a "breach of trust." Still, he gave no indication he cared about the collection of data itself or how Cambridge Analytica used that data to develop psychological profiles of Americans. None of that was against Facebook's terms of service. The issue was that, technically, C.A. was an outside party, as they hired an academic to create the app, then later paid him for his efforts. And that is against the rules. But Zuckerberg doesn't like to hold grudges. According to Christopher Wylie- famous whistleblower and former Cambridge Analytica employee- Facebook's ad team, led by COO Sheryl Sandberg, helped C.A. develop their advertising campaigns a full year after Facebook knew of this "breach of trust."

To group users by various psychological traits (then later serve ads that exploited those traits), Cambridge Analytica used a phycological model called OCEAN— Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

C.A. claims that these models were at the heart of how they profiled you — your neuroses and other exploitable traits. — New York Times

CA created a psychological quiz and paid 300,000 Facebook users roughly $5 each to log into the app and complete the quiz. Since those users signed in using Facebook Login, CA was not only able to obtain the names, locations, and 'like' histories of the over quarter million participants, but their friends' names, locations, and 'like’ histories as well. Eighty-seven million friends, to be exact. Pretty clever, right? Like, how would anyone even think to do that? Well.

In 2012, Facebook released a third study: Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. The study detailed a method for applying the OCEAN phycological model on Facebook users based on their 'like' history and, yes, results from a quiz.

By its own accord, Cambridge Analytica was founded on the ability to harvest and profile user data. The studies conducted and shared publicly by Facebook seem to line up perfectly with Cambridge Analytica's strategy for the 2016 Presidential election. Without those studies and without access to all that user data via the Open Graph, Cambridge Analytica simply does not exist.

Steve Bannon: Vice President, Cambridge Analytica
Steve Bannon: Vice President, Cambridge Analytica

Our newsfeeds operate in darkness

There's a missing piece to this puzzle. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single advertisement made by Cambridge Analytica. How can that be? No one has seen an ad post-scandal because it ran as something called a dark ad, or dark post.

Here's a quote by Carole Cadwalladr from her 2019 Ted Talk titled Facebook's role in Brexit — and the threat to democracy

This entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it's impossible to research anything.

Facebook has since created an open ad library in which anyone can see what ads are currently running. However, there is very little anyone can do to research what people saw on their newsfeeds during the months leading to the 2016 election in the absence of government pressure. I can't stress enough how inept the U.S. Congress has been through all this and how little they've managed to hold Facebook accountable.

Thankfully, the U.K. Parliament was able to subpoena a few of the Brexit ads developed by C.A. Another misconception is that C.A. has only meddled in the 2016 presidential election, but they've been accused of orchestrating disinformation campaigns in over 150 democratic elections worldwide.

Disinformation ad ran by Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU
Disinformation ad ran by Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU

There was never any indication that anyone even so much as considered the possibility of Turkey joining the E.U. Cambridge Analytica identified users prone to xenophobia, then targeted ads to them that incited fear. No one knew this was happening at the time because only Facebook ultimately knows what's happening on our newsfeeds. Only we, as individuals, know what Facebook decides to put in front of our eyeballs.

Are we really connected?

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have long pushed the narrative of connecting Facebook users to the world, but they’ve done the opposite. Facebook has stripped us from the very thing that unites us as humans— our shared experiences and understanding of reality. We've been separated into psychological silos (psychlos?). Our worst fears, biases, and neuroses are collected and categorized, then fed back to us via our newsfeeds, closed groups, and dark posts.

Our governments demand fact-checking for our newsfeeds by the same force amplifying the lies. And lost in all this is what we arguably need the most; the best fact-checkers we have— ourselves. We've been encouraged by Facebook to quietly unfollow any friction in our social circles, and in that process, we may lose a trusted friend's voice of reason. We no longer see posts from known experts willing to contextualize a claim because they've been muted. Facebook provided us with the tools not to connect but to isolate. And we chip away at the people around us, the ones who matter, until all we have are messages designed to exploit our most vulnerable traits. All the while, we are oblivious to, and cannot opt out from, the psychological manipulation.

What Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to do was weaponize it’s tools in a way that we now no longer agree on basic truths—- vaccinations prevent disease, the world is a sphere, Hilary Clinton is not drinking the blood of children as a fountain of youth.

We lay in our beds before we sleep, and we stare at a screen, at our very own personal slideshow that prioritizes negativity and disinformation. There is no one around to see what we see. No one to help us reason away our fears.

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandburg continue to stand in front of the classroom, pitching us on new products they themselves don’t fully understand. If Facebook is willing and able to control us from a glowing rectangle one foot from our faces, just imagine what they can accomplish with a pair of Image Memory Glasses wrapped around our heads as we enter the metaverse.

After the scandal broke in 2018, Cambridge Analytica closed its doors, only to reappear under the name Emerdata. Facebook has since changed its name to Meta, and Jake Gyllenhaal finds himself in the crosshairs of Taylor Swift fans.

If you enjoyed this article, you can sign up for my newsletter for free, here. I post once a week about tech, freelance and interesting finds.