Attendees visit the Facebook Help Desk inside the Conservative Political Action Conference Hub at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. Earlier in the day U.S. President Donald Trump addressed CPAC, the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the nation.

Attendees visit the Facebook Help Desk inside the Conservative Political Action Conference Hub at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. Earlier in the day U.S. President Donald Trump addressed CPAC, the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the nation.

After Donald Trump proved so many prognosticators wrong and won the election in 2016, the news was littered with explanations for how the campaign won over voters in key states. One suggestion that Trump’s clever use of data had a lot to do with his victory. The campaign had used a firm called Cambridge Analytica, which had ties to conservative investor Robert Mercer and strategist Steve Bannon, to identify and reach potential supporters.

It was a strategy that combined computer science and psychology. In early 2017, The New York Times called this kind of data harvesting “an emerging science that many believe could reshape American politics and commerce.”

Big data companies already know your age, income, favorite cereal and when you last voted. But the company that can perfect psychological targeting could offer far more potent tools: the ability to manipulate behavior by understanding how someone thinks and what he or she fears.

A voter deemed neurotic might be shown a gun-rights commercial featuring burglars breaking into a home, rather than a defense of the Second Amendment; political ads warning of the dangers posed by the Islamic State could be targeted directly at voters prone to anxiety, rather than wasted on those identified as optimistic.

Now, one of the minds behind Cambridge Analytica has gone on the record to say the company was more than a way to influence elections. As he describes it, Cambridge Analytica was essentially built to be the most powerful weapon in a culture war.

A follow-up investigation from the UK’s Channel 4 secretly filmed the group’s top executives as claiming they could entrap politicians using bribes and Ukrainian sex workers.

Officials from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have in the past denied that the firm used the social network’s data. After these new revelations went public, lawmakers in the U.S. and the U.K. began demanding answers from Facebook.

But even if the firm is found to have improperly acquired data, that won’t make all this information go away. By using Facebook and other networks, we’ve already given up enough personal information to be targeted and swayed by anyone with access to our profiles and an incentive to influence us.

What now?

Guests

  • Jen Grygiel Assistant professor of communications, the Newhouse School at Syracuse University; @jmgrygiel
  • Issie Lapowsky Senior writer, Wired; @issielapowsky
  • Brendan Fischer Director of federal and FEC reform, Campaign Legal Center; @brendan_fischer
  • Michael Simon CEO, Elucd; established the analytics department for the Obama campaign; @mbsimon

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