UPDATED with Cambridge Analytica repsponse: Cambridge Analytica has gone on a Twitter blitz in response to allegations it manipulated purloined Facebook user data while working as a consultant to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Eight of the tweets went out in a single storm; others were responses to individual queries from journalists and others. Among other claims, the company said it did not harvest data from Facebook and is in compliance with the social network’s terms of service, and that Christopher Wylie was a consultant but not a founder, contrary to reports. “Advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that,” one tweet said. Rejecting media characterizations of its role, the company scoffed, “This isn’t a spy movie. We’re a data analytics company.”
EARLIER: Cambridge Analytica, the data firm backed by Donald Trump supporter Robert Mercer and once steered by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, obtained personal information from 50 million Facebook users without permission. That data then was used to target voters and influence the 2016 election, according to two in-depth reports.
The revelation comes via whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a founder of Cambridge Analytica who left in 2014 but remained a key member of data harvesting team. Wylie spoke to the New York Times and the UK’s Observer and reporters at both newspapers also dug up extensive information to support his claims.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Wylie told the Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on.” He went a bit further in the Times. “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.” He added, “They want to fight a culture war in America. Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
Late Friday, Facebook announced it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and its parent, Strategic Communication Laboratories. “In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies,” Facebook’s VP and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a statement.
Kogan had sent data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, as well as Wylie, who was working with Eunoia Technologies. The app, called “thisisyourdigitallife,” billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” It requested and was granted access to the information from users, offering them a personality prediction. About 270,000 people downloaded the app, Facebook said.
Facebook, already under the microscope for the role it played in the 2016 election and in general as a repository of fake accounts controlled by hackers for nefarious purposes, insists it did all it could as soon as it uncovered the violation. “When we learned of this violation in 2015,” Grewal said, “we removed the app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”
Cambridge Analytica did not follow through and destroy the data, Wylie now says, and those original 270,000 downloads grew to 50 million accounts thanks to the multiplier effect of social networks.
Cambridge Analytica formally began working for the Trump campaign in June 2016, promising that its “psychographic” profiles could predict the political tendencies of U.S. adults. The company has long been viewed with suspicion for its methods and its role in the interference in the 2016 election by hackers supported by Russia. According to a report Friday in the Wall Street Journal, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has asked the company to turn over documents that may be relevant to his long-running investigation into Russia’s ties to Donald Trump.