How digital footprints paved way to weaponising social media

How digital footprints paved way to weaponising social media

If you “like” curly fries on Facebook, you are more likely to have a high IQ.

This may not appear to be an observation that could lead to the mass manipulation of an electorate, but the finding came from a scientific breakthrough that led to the weaponisation of Facebook as a powerful political tool and helped Donald Trump capture the US presidency.

Around five years ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Psychometric Centre began to publish groundbreaking work outlining how the social networking site could be used to accurately measure the personality traits of millions.

By looking at how people use Facebook and what they “like,” researchers found that “computers’ judgments of people’s personalities based on their digital footprint are more accurate than judgments made by people close to them.

The work has been picked apart by security and intelligence services looking for any edge on understanding the motivations of citizens. But it also caught the attention of Christopher Wylie, a former law student and self-taught computer coder.

At the age of 24, Mr Wylie used the research as the basis of his work for UK-based Cambridge Analytica, a controversial political research firm that says it “uses data to change audience behaviour.” The group worked on Mr Trump’s successful election campaign.

Over the weekend, Mr Wylie turned whistleblower, speaking at length to The Observer and New York Times newspapers, alleging Cambridge Analytica benefited from the harvesting of Facebook data of more than 50m mostly US users, helping to predict their political preferences and create ways to influence their votes.

If your business is building a massive surveillance machinery, the data will eventually be used & misused. Hacked, breached, leaked, pilfered, conned, ‘targeted’, ‘engaged’, ‘profiled’, sold

Though the company said it would not reveal its owners, it has been widely reported that a major Investor in Cambridge Analytica’s parent company is the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who helped to bankroll Mr Trump’s presidential run. Steve Bannon, who would later go on to lead Mr Trump’s campaign and become a key White House adviser, was a top executive at the firm.

Mr Wylie could not be reached for comment, but he told The Observer that he helped to create “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Mr Bannon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The revelations have rocked Facebook, already under political pressure for not doing more to stop the platform being used by Russian disinformation operatives and purveyors of fake news during the US election.

Only mid-level Facebook executives have commented on the revelations. They have focused on denying that there was a data breach, as there was no hacker and users gave their consent for the data to be used.

Zeynep Tufecki, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said the problem is not with Facebook’s security, but its entire business model.

“If your business is building a massive surveillance machinery, the data will eventually be used & misused. Hacked, breached, leaked, pilfered, conned, “targeted”, “engaged”, “profiled”, sold,” she tweeted.

On Friday night, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica and Mr Wylie from using the platform. The social networking group was forced to reveal that in 2015, it learnt that Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, had passed Facebook data collected by a personality prediction app to Cambridge Analytica. Dr Kogan did not reply to a request for comment.

The app called “this is your digital life” was billed a research tool used by psychologists. Some 270,000 people downloaded the app, which used Facebook login, and gave it consent to access data from their Facebook profiles. Crucially, this also allowed it to access information about the friends of people who downloaded the app, helping to widen the net of people it captured information from to the many millions.

Facebook said Dr Kogan broke the company’s rules by passing it to third parties, Cambridge Analytica and Mr Wylie. When the internet company learned of the violation in 2015, it removed the app from Facebook and demanded assurances the data had been destroyed, but it did not publicly disclose the matter at the time.

Mr Wylie alleges the information helped Cambridge Analytica target the “inner demons” of voters, designing precise and targeted political messages that would resonate with potential swing voters.

The sophisticated use of social media and Facebook advertising has been apparent since 2008. Digital campaigning groups such as Blue State Digital worked for Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign, though there is no suggestion the firm or campaign ever broke Facebook’s rules or data privacy laws.

By contrast, the claims by Mr Wylie, has engulfed Cambridge Analytica into its worst crisis since being founded in 2013. It is now under Investigation by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic and politicians are asking questions of the data analytics firm and the social network. The Financial Times once hired Cambridge Analytica for a Market research project.

Cambridge Analytica said it did not use or hold Facebook data. It argued that Dr Kogan was a “seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution” and that it believed Dr Kogan’s company, Global Science Research, was complying with UK law.

Cambridge Analytica said it later deleted all the data it had received from GSR and was not used it in the work it did in the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if the group no longer holds Facebook data, the information could have been used to perfect algorithms designed to understand the motivations and desires of millions — a weapon for politicians and corporations to hire in global battle to influence people.

Christopher Wylie

A striking 28-year-old man with dyed-pink hair and nose ring, Christopher Wylie has lifted the lid on modern methods used to target and sway electorates in the US, UK and beyond.

According to an interview given to The Observer, Mr Wylie grew up in Canada and left school aged 16 without qualifications, but talent and brains led him into political work for liberal parties in the UK and Canada. Aged 20, he came to London to study law at university, and aged 24, while studying for a PhD in “fashion trend forecasting,” came across research that showed how to create sophisticated personality profiles based on Facebook data.

This led him to work for Cambridge Analytica, the political research firm, which allegedly used the data harvested from millions of Facebook accounts to create online adverts designed to hone on in the psychological traits of individuals.

While at the firm, Mr Wylie says he spoke at length with, among others, Steve Bannon, the former Trump Administration staffer who once led Cambridge Analytica, and the firm’s ultimate owner, the billionaire Robert Mercer, about his work and theories.

My Wylie told The Observer that he assumed that the work was “entirely legal and above board,” but added: “We ‘broke’ Facebook.”


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