No, Obama Didn’t Employ the Same Strategies as Cambridge Analytica

Following reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of people on Facebook, the company signaled to right-wing media what their response should be. They took to Twitter with a lie that mirrors much of what we’ve heard from Trump over the last couple of years: “Obama did it too.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign was famously data-driven, pioneered microtargeting in 2012, talking to people specifically based on the issues they care about.

That is a fairly accurate description of data-driven microtargeting, which doesn’t have a lot to do with the kind of psychological profiling done by Cambridge Analytica. But the issue is not just how the data was used, it’s also how CA managed to compile 3,000-5,000 data points on approximately 230 million people. What we now know is that they used free personality quizzes, where people were told that their information was only going to be used for research purposes, and gathered not only all of their Facebook data in the process, but swept up all of the data from their Facebook friends as well.

Here’s the response from someone who knows a thing or two about what the Obama campaign actually did:

Nevertheless, right-wing media picked up the ball that Cambridge Analytica tossed to them and carried their message forward. Here’s Ben Shapiro at The Hill in a piece titled, “What’s genius for Obama is scandal when it comes to Trump.”

The Guardian reported that President Obama’s reelection team was “building a vast digital data operation that for the first time combines a unified database on millions of Americans with the power of Facebook to target individual voters to a degree never achieved before.”

What, exactly, would Obama be doing? According to The Guardian, Obama’s new database would be gathered by asking individual volunteers to log into Obama’s reelection site using their Facebook credentials. “Consciously or otherwise,” The Guardian states, “the individual volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page — home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends — directly into the central Obama database.”

While Shapiro doesn’t bother to provide a link to the Guardian article he is referencing, I’m pretty sure it’s this one written by Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel. Let’s take a look at what they said about the Obama campaign.

Every time an individual volunteers to help out – for instance by offering to host a fundraising party for the president – he or she will be asked to log onto the re-election website with their Facebook credentials. That in turn will engage Facebook Connect, the digital interface that shares a user’s personal information with a third party.

Notice that this was an invitation that came directly from the Obama campaign, which the volunteer could either chose to accept or reject. From there, the information went into a central database.

The Obama database incorporates Vote Builder, a store of essential information such as age, postal address, occupation and voting history drawn from the voter files of 190 million active voters. It lines up and matches those voter files with data gathered from online interactions with the president’s supporters – notably the millions of pieces of information its army of canvassers collected across the nation during the 2008 race, a list of email addresses of supporters that it has amassed and that now stands at about 23 million, as well as the contact information of Obama’s 25 million Facebook fans.

Here is how they used Facebook information to not only microtarget their campaign messages, but reach out to the friends of their supporters.

The significance of the fusion of Facebook and voter file data is hard to overemphasise. “This is the Moneyball moment for politics,” says Sam Graham-Felsen, Obama’s chief blogger in 2008. “If you can figure out how to leverage the power of friendship, that opens up incredible possibilities.”

First among those possibilities is that the campaign can distribute customised content designed specifically for its Facebook fans to share with their much wider circle of friends. The messages can be honed to a particular demographic – age, gender, etc – as well as set of interests, and targeted on the most hotly contested parts of the most crucial battleground states…

Goff said the campaign was focused on building relationships through social media. An Obama message would be crafted so that “not only can it be passed to your friends but to those friends that we think are most in need of passing it on to”.

The bottom line is that if you are sent a message from your Facebook friend encouraging you to turn up to an event or donate to Obama, you are vastly more likely to respond than if the request comes from an anonymous campaign staffer.

In other words, the Obama campaign used Facebook as a community organizing tool, which is pretty much the opposite of stealing data in order to engage in psychological warfare.

But the nuance of that will be lost on the consumers of right-wing media, which is the story of how we got here in the first place.

UPDATE: Part II on how the approach of Cambridge Analytica differed from the Obama Campaign is here.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.