Special Briefing: Data Debacle - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Special Briefing: Data Debacle

Special Briefing: Data Debacle

By OZY Editors

A sign posted in front of Facebook headquarters on Nov. 1, 2017, in Menlo Park, California.
SourceJustin Sullivan/Getty


Because it’s not just Russian operatives who are trying to manipulate you through covert social media “psy-ops.”

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened. Cambridge Analytica, the election consulting firm that worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the Brexit campaign and dozens of other political clients, is accused of harvesting private information from more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission. In secret recordings, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 News on Monday, the firm’s CEO, Alexander Nix, bragged about swaying the 2016 election for President Donald Trump and explained how the firm uses sex workers, bribes and misinformation to help its political clients. Nix was suspended after the news broke.

Why it matters. Cambridge’s improper collection of Facebook data, reportedly overseen by ex–White House adviser Steve Bannon and funded by billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer, helped the firm exploit the private social media activity of millions of American users in an attempt to influence their behavior during the 2016 election. Facebook reportedly learned about the data leak back in 2015 but did not suspend the firm from its network or inform users that their data had been harvested until the story was exposed.

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Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix at the company’s office on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 10 blocks south of Trump Tower.

Source Joshua Bright for The Washington Post via Getty Images


Look behind the veil. On paper, Cambridge Analytica is a strategic communications firm offering clients behavioral research to optimize their marketing methods. In reality, critics say, the firm exploited both Facebook and the name of a world-class institution to surreptitiously tip the scales for its high-profile clients, including the Trump campaign. The firm paid to acquire the private Facebook data through a Russian-American professor named Aleksandr Kogan at the University of Cambridge, who claimed to be using it for academic purposes. Kogan has received Russian government research grants in the past, but claims he had no idea what Cambridge Analytica was really doing with the data.


Click here to see your perfect president. The data was originally mined from Facebook users under the guise of a personality testing app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” That data included information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles because of Cambridge’s ability to gather information from friends of the personality test users. The data was then used for crafting personalized political ads as well as Trump campaign strategy.

The trail of your ‘digital breadcrumbs.’ Often described as the world’s largest and most lucrative advertising platform, Facebook plays a central role in making your personal data available to thousands of apps, whose aim is to collect user information. It’s often sold to data brokers like Acxiom, which effectively own your “digital breadcrumbs.” Companies like Farmville and Tinder, as well as Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, use Facebook data. All such activity has been loosely regulated thus far — but that could change after the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

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Then-candidate Donald Trump talks to reporters after the first prime-time presidential debate on August 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Source Scott Olson/Getty

What’s on your mind, Facebook? USA Today calls the data-harvesting crisis a “catastrophic moment” for Facebook. Yet the company’s response has been uncharacteristically slow, aside from its initial threats to sue The Observer, the British newspaper that broke the story. “The entire company is outraged we were deceived,” a Facebook statement noted days after the reports. On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went further: “This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry that this happened.” Meanwhile, the story has hammered the company’s stock price, left employees demoralized and prompted the hashtag #deletefacebook.

Let the investigations begin. Cambridge Analytica is facing investigations by Parliament and government regulators in Britain while Facebook confronts federal and state investigations into its mishandling of user data. Federal Trade Commission fines for the violations could potentially reach $2 trillion. 


Trump’s High-Tech Dirty Tricksters, by Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times

“Whether or not Cambridge Analytica’s methodology works, the fact that the Trump campaign had a crew of high-tech dirty tricksters on its payroll is significant.”

Silicon Valley Has Failed to Protect Our Data. Here’s How to Fix It, by Paul Ford in Bloomberg Businessweek

“When it comes to toxic data spills, it’s hard to know just how exposed you are. Literally all of us have been hacked — hard and a lot and mostly behind our backs.”


Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower: “We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles.”

“You are playing with the psychology of an entire country without their consent or awareness … [and] in the context of the democratic process.”

Watch on The Guardian on YouTube:

Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm

“We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy.” — Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix to an undercover reporter

Watch on Channel 4 News on YouTube:


According to a former employee at Cambridge Analytica, the firm was testing out slogans like “Drain the Swamp” and “Build the Wall” as early as 2014 — well before Donald Trump entered the 2016 campaign and made the slogans the staple of his political rallies.

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