Cambridge Analytica: Mavericks or industry representatives?

The recent scandal surrounding the allegations that Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from Facebook users, matching it with answers to a personality questionnaire casts a spotlight on one aspect of an increasingly common practice, writes Mike Thelwall, Professor of Information Science.

Marketing campaigns, customer relations managers and political campaigns have turned to social media for information about potential customers and voters. By harvesting informal posts to the social web on a large scale they have a quick and relatively cheap source of real-time feedback about what people think and how they react to marketing campaigns or news events. It has become normal for businesses and campaigns to get insights into their target audiences in this way. This is possible because the terms of service in many social web sites allow some or all their activities to be reused or sold.

At the individual level, marketers indirectly exploit personal information in social network sites to target advertisements at people that might be most receptive to them. For example, they can specify that an advert should be shown to females 20-30 and then the network owner will check its users’ details and send the advertisements to those matching the profile. For this, the advertiser does not need to be told the identity of those receiving the adverts and so their personal information is not being given away.

Cambridge Analytica’s alleged matching of personality questionnaire data with Facebook profile information would have given them deeper insights into users and allowed messages to be targeted by personality rather than just demographics. Facebook is taking steps to prevent this from being possible in the future.

This is an example of the most powerful form of social media analytics: knitting together different sources of information to build a more complete picture of each individual. It has become possible to link together information in this way because most membership-based sites require email and/or mobile phone verification procedures. If this information is sold then analytics companies can use them to tie together information from different sites. They may even be able to tie this information to your home address, if you have bought a product online and given your address. From your postcode they can then guess other information, such as how wealthy you are. If someone knows all this information about you then they can target you with messages that you are most susceptible to, multiplying the marketing power of campaigns. Good marketing is already very effective at selling products and politics so this additional power is very worrying.

What can we do? Individually, we can be wary of giving away too much personal information online, such as for personality tests. It is difficult to avoid giving away some of our information online if we want to buy things or socialise online but we can also put pressure on government to ensure that privacy legislation is kept up-to-date and enforced.

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