Analysis of Presidential Elections in the USA in 2017

Published: 2021-07-10 19:05:05
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The 2016 presidential election in America was a very divisive time in the country. Many accusations were thrown around between both parties in an effort to discredit one another. Our nation, right now, may be more partisan than it has ever been before. Plenty of scandals came up during the campaign process for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but one in particular was only brought to the mainstream public’s attention over a year after Donald Trump was sworn into office. News broke out that a company named, Cambridge Analytica, had allegedly invaded the privacy of millions of Facebook users in an attempt to gain knowledge of personality traits through public profiles. These accusations have only come to light within the past several months and many people are scrambling to figure out what exactly Cambridge Analytica had done.
This research paper is a look into the process that Cambridge Analytica used to collect personality data and how they used it to influence people, and potentially even the presidential election. Hilary Osborne from The Guardian (2018) says that Cambridge Analytica is a company that offers services to political parties who want to change audience behavior using data profiling. According to Rosenberg, Confessore, and Cadwalladr from their article in the New York Times, researchers at Cambridge Analytica developed a method to map personality traits based on a person’s ‘likes’ on Facebook. These researchers paid users to take a personality quiz and then download an app. Once the app had been downloaded, the app would be given access to the participant’s private profile information, and the information of that person’s friends on Facebook. All of this data was allowed by Facebook at the time it was taken. The researchers there claimed that this data could reveal more about a person than their parents or friends – a claim that has been disputed.Alexandra Ma from Business Insider (2018) found that most of the data came from a personality quiz that Alexandr Kogan had developed called, ‘thisisyourdigitallife’. This application used a method of seeding that allowed him and his researchers to gather data about all of the Facebook friends that the personality quiz participant had. Gonzalez from Counterpunch states that this app allowed access to the personal information of about 50 million Facebook users using approximately 4,000 data points for each individual. They would use this information and cross-reference it with commercially available information such as religious affiliation, club memberships, land registries, and much more. Furthermore, they would again cross-reference all of this data with public records such as electoral rolls and information taken from data brokers like Acxiom and Experian to create what was called as ‘Psychographics.’
Psychographics are defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, as the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, beliefs, aspirations, etc. primarily used for market research. What is really interesting is that a copy of an email that Alexander Kogan sent to Chris Wylie and others who were redacted for privacy, stated that after they collected the data he believed that they had enough information to predict openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, life satisfaction, IQ, political views, and many more aspects of a person. Alexander Kogan said in the email that this was a “shopping list” that Wylie and others could choose from. Taken from the Senate Judiciary meeting, Christopher Wylie stated that the data Cambridge Analytica had obtained was used to identify mental vulnerabilities in voters and then targeted specific information towards these people to bring out characteristics of the person such as neuroticism, paranoia, and racial biases. This was performed by Cambridge Analytica’s ‘Project Ripon’ that was created using specific algorithms to target these psychological characteristics. These algorithms to exploit mental vulnerabilities were used to map out ways to send information directly to people through ads and other types of content online so that people would start to see this targeted information everywhere, regardless of whether it was true or not.
Once Cambridge Analytica collected all of these data points, they used it for conservative political gain. From the Senate Judiciary meeting, once they had collected the data they then used pre-selected images and keywords that they believed would most likely elicit a change in behavior for these people. The pre-selected keywords and images were sampled, for example, ‘drain the swamp’ and an image of border walls were used. These were key components of conservative targeting strategies that were later used by the Donald Trump presidential campaign. These messages were tested years before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the election and according to Wylie, the company found that certain parts of the population would respond better to these keywords or images. This type of extensive research was not usually used in political discourse and was a major component to several conservative campaigns.
According to Debbie Lord an example of these targeted messages was stronger border security. Conservatives who believed in that would see messages from a candidate that would talk about his or her support for keeping undocumented immigrants from coming into the U.S. It is also stated that the Trump campaign vehemently denied using these tactics, however, it was discovered that the financial records of his campaign show that they paid Cambridge Analytica 5.9 million dollars for “data management services.” Other examples from Gonzalez included targeting highly conscientious and neurotic people about their perceived threat of getting robbed and using that fear to feed information to these people about gun laws and insurance policies of guns. Also, if their algorithms detected highly closed and highly agreeable people, they would target them with messages about the importance of family and ensuring you are keeping your family safe with the protection of a gun. According to the PR Newswire article, the Ted Cruz presidential campaign also enlisted the help of Cambridge Analytica to target specific voters. Using the 5-factor model, they were able to determine likely pro-Cruz voters and send them targeted messages and ads to resonate specifically with each person’s personality type. The article states that this method allowed the Cruz campaign to gain the edge it needed to win the first primary in the 2016 election.
Another alarming tactic conservatives used was voter disengagement. Christopher Wylie stated in the Senate Judiciary meeting that according to his understanding, this data was used to target African-American voters to convince them not to vote, or that their vote did not matter to suppress this liberal part of the population. He also said that Cambridge Analytica was looking for certain vulnerabilities in individuals to persuade them to have a distrust of the mainstream media and would feed them conspiracy theories and other forms of information that would manipulate a person’s perspective on voting. The question now is, did this data collection and ad targeting actually affect the outcome of the election and was this data collection ethical? Gonzalez found that Cambridge Analytica has been involved with more presidential and political campaigns than just the U.S. His research found that Cambridge Analytica had been involved with the presidential election in Kenya that occurred just a year ago. He found that the company had secretly managed the Uhuru Kenyatta presidential campaign; Kenyatta was the incumbent of the right-wing Jubilee Party.
The managing director of the company stated that they wrote all of the speeches, wrote manifestos, and “staged the whole thing” for the candidate. It is believed that the company used a very similar tactic of personalized ad targeting to the citizens of Kenya. Gonzalez does note that Kenya’s recent history of electoral fraud probably affected Kenyatta’s ultimate win and Cambridge Analytica most likely did not have much of an impact on the election results. Professor Eitan Hersh was also at the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting with Wylie and was asked questions for the record. He states that research on the persuadable voters has found that it is very hard for a campaign ad to change a voter’s mind, especially when it comes to presidential races. With these opinions and the research I have done, I do not believe that Cambridge Analytica was able to significantly affect the outcome of the election. I agree with Hersh that most voters already know who they are voting for when it comes to presidential elections and that a targeted ad on Facebook is unlikely to change these voters minds. It is true that the company intricately used data to map personality profiles to try and elicit a reaction from receivers of targeted ads, but that might not be enough to actually change a person’s mind on who they are voting for president. This leads into my next question about the ethics of all of this data collection.
In The Guardian article by Harry Davies, he found that a spokesman for Facebook stated that misleading or misusing people’s information is a violation of their policies and that all of their data should be destroyed immediately. According to Alexandra Ma, Cambridge Analytica did not delete the data they collected but that Facebook never checked in with them to ensure the data was destroyed. This is especially problematic as the service that was the reason all of this data could be collected never checked to make sure private information is not in the wrong hands. By taking a step back, we can see that the data collection that we know about did not break any federal laws but the ethics of it are a big gray-area. Only time can tell how America will handle situations like this as congress and our government slowly catch up to these social networks and new technology and make sure legislation is passed to prevent something like this from happening again.

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