Facebook, Trump, and Russia

As the Mueller probe continues, there’s new evidence about the interaction between the Trump campaign, a sinister British political consulting firm — Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook.  They collaborated to steal the 2016 election.   By the way, there’s a Russia connection.

To understand the role of Facebook we recall the period after the 2016 candidate debates.  The last debate occurred in Las Vegas, on October 19th; Hillary Clinton won that debate, as she had the previous two debates.  At the time, most Americans thought Clinton would win the presidential election as polls showed ahead and it was widely believed that the Democrats had a superior “ground game;” that is, Dems were assumed to have a much more muscular ability to get-out-the-vote on November 8th.

The influential website, 538, believes that a single event cost Clinton the election: the October 28, 2016, letter that FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-comey-letter-probably-cost-clinton-the-election/ ) reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails.  It’s probably more accurate to say that Clinton lost for multiple reasons.  One was a massive shift towards Trump on election day; the Trump campaign managed to get out their vote.

Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.  Nonetheless, she lost the presidency because she lost the electoral college; specifically, she lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined total of 79,646 votes.  That’s where the influence of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook (and Russia) mattered.  The Trump campaign developed their own electronic get-out-the-vote effort, targeted to swing states.

In the traditional people-powered get-out-the-vote effort, volunteers go door to door to first register voters and then, later, to encourage registered voters to vote for specific candidates.  The volunteers are aided by current precinct lists that show the residences of interest — for example, where Democrats live, who the residents are, and their recent voting behavior; that is, did they vote in the most recent election (the lists don’t show how they voted in the latest election because that information is confidential).  In more sophisticated voter outreach, basic information is amplified by relevant consumer data; for example does a specific voter belong to the Sierra Club or is there someone in the house that does not speak English.

The more sophisticated the voter data base, the more effective the get-out-the-vote effort is.  In 2016 the Trump campaign, with the help of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, developed a remarkable swing-state voter data base.  They did not hand data base printouts to volunteers to guide their door-to-door interaction; instead the data base information drove electronic interaction using social media, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Unlike previous get-out-the-vote efforts, the Trump campaign strove to both get out Trump voters and inhibit possible Clinton voters.

Typically, in the last few days of the election cycle, the get-out-the-vote efforts focuses on “persuadable” voters.  That is, no special effort is spent on reliable voters, those who have voted in the last few elections.  The volunteers focus on intermittent Democratic voters and Independent voters who they believe might vote for their candidate.  The volunteers repeatedly knock on doors with the intent of convincing persuadable voters to vote on election day.

In 2016, the Trump campaign bypassed the traditional door-to-door get-out-the-vote approach and, instead, contacted persuadable voters electronically.  For a voter deemed likely to vote for Trump, the campaign sent them email, twitter, or Facebook messages.  In addition they sent them news briefs — primarily via Facebook — that would likely convince the persuadable voter to vote for Trump.

The genius of the Trump-Cambridge Analytica-Facebook approach is that it, to a degree never seen before, personalized the messages to persuadable voters.  They used the Facebook data to develop a voter profile and then sent voters messages based upon this profile.  (This worked both to motivate voters to vote for Trump and to dissuade potential Clinton voters for voting for her.)

Writing in The New Yorker, Sue Halpern (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/cambridge-analytica-facebook-and-the-revelations-of-open-secrets ) observed: “Cambridge Analytica contractors worked with Trump’s digital team, headed by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner. Alongside all of them were Facebook employees who were embedded with the Trump campaign to help them use Facebook’s various tools most effectively—including the so-called “dark posts,” used to dissuade African-Americans from showing up to vote.”

The most informative investigative journalism is in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/23/leaked-cambridge-analyticas-blueprint-for-trump-victory ): “The blueprint for how Cambridge Analytica claimed to have won the White House for Donald Trump by using Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube is revealed for the first time in an internal company document obtained by the Guardian… it details the techniques used by the Trump campaign to micro-target US voters with carefully tailored messages about the Republican nominee across digital channels.  Intensive survey research, data modeling and performance-optimizing algorithms were used to target 10,000 different ads to different audiences in the months leading up to the election.”

And the Russians were involved.  Writing in Slate (https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/did-cambridge-analytica-leverage-russian-disinformation-for-trump.html ), Justin Hendrix reported “Cambridge Analytica also enlisted Russian-American academic Aleksandr Kogan to mine the private Facebook user data that is the subject of the ongoing scandal. While an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, Kogan received grants from the Russian government to research ‘stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks.'”

The Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook collaborated to steal the 2016 election. With help from the Russians.