On March 17, 2018, The New York Times, alongside The Guardian and The Observer, reported that Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that worked on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, and its related company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, pilfered the data of 50 million Facebook users and secretly kept it. This revelation and its implications, that Facebook allowed data from millions of its users to be captured and improperly used to influence the presidential election, ignited a conflagration that threatens to engulf the already tattered reputation of the embattled social media giant.
For five days, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, remained what many called “deafeningly silent,” before finally posting a lengthy response to his personal Facebook page. He then spoke to a small handful of news outlets, including WIRED, offering apologies, conceding mistakes, and, surprisingly, even entertaining regulation for his sprawling company.
From the moment the news about Cambridge broke, the media hydrant gushed out report after report. For those who want a linear representation of the week’s news, below you can find WIRED’s extensive Cambridge Analytica coverage—which dates back nearly two years.
A Lot of People Are Saying Trump’s New Data Team Is Shady
It started in the summer of 2016, when Trump’s team hired Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that had worked with Ben Carson and Ted Cruz during their presidential primary runs. As WIRED senior writer Issie Lapowsky reported at the time, the firm claimed to target voters based upon their psychological profiles, but some critics called “the company’s ‘psychographic’ targeting claims hype at best and snake oil at worst.” A Trump aide told WIRED at the time that the data from Cambridge was “‘one cog in a very large engine’ fueled by information from the Republican National Committee and other vendors.”
Trump’s Big Data Mind Explains How He Knew Trump Could Win
After Trump won the presidential election, in November 2016, Lapowsky reached out to Matt Oczkowski, director of product for Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s data team. As Lapowsky wrote then, “The election upset already has inspired headlines about data being dead. Trump did, after all, reject the need for data, only to hire Cambridge Analytica during the summer after clinching the nomination. But Oczkowski believes such a characterization is as much a misreading of the situation as the polls themselves. ‘Data is not dead,’ he says, before repeating the old political adage that data doesn’t win campaigns, it only win margins. ‘Data’s alive and kicking. It’s just how you use it and how you buck normal political trends to understand your data.’”
What Did Cambridge Analytica Really Do for Trump’s Campaign?
Nearly a year later, in October 2017, news broke that Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, had approached Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in 2016 to exploit Hillary Clinton’s private emails, a revelation that raised concerns about Cambridge’s role in Trump’s 2016 campaign. People who worked with Trump’s campaign quickly moved to downplay Cambridge’s role, saying that the Republican National Campaign was the primary source of voter data, and “Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false.” This prompted a lot of questions about who did what when.
Cambridge Analytica Took 50M Facebook Users’ Data—And Both Companies Owe Answers
Which brings us up to date. On March 17, 2018, The New York Times, along with The Guardian and The Observer, reported that Cambridge Analytica and its related company, SCL, pilfered data on 50 million Facebook users and secretly kept it. Just hours before the report was set to publish, Facebook suspended both Cambridge and SCL while it investigates whether both companies retained Facebook user data that had been provided by third-party researcher Aleksandr Kogan of the company Global Science Research, a violation of Facebook’s terms. Facebook says it knew about the breach, but had received legally binding guarantees from the company that all of the data was deleted. “We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice president and general counsel, wrote in a blog post.
The Noisy Fallacies of Psychographic Targeting
Of course, all of this prompted concerns about what “psychographic targeting” really means. WIRED contributor Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook employee who worked on the monetization team, explored Cambridge Analytica’s ad effectiveness claims,…