New Delhi: In 2018, a massive Facebook breach by London-based firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) was uncovered and it came to light that the data of approximately 87 million users was compromised. The breach was blamed for a number of political events including now outgoing US President Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 and for influencing the UK’s Brexit referendum the same year.
India was also drawn into a scandal after reports emerged that the Congress party had been pitched an election strategy by CA ahead of the 2019 general elections but the offer was rejected. A report by NDTV in 2018 had said the firm had offered services that included shifting the balance in Congress’ favour and “influencing voter intention”, and the entire pitch would have cost them Rs 7.5 crore.
Now, two years down the line, while the CA scandal continues to dominate headlines, election experts note that the actual impact of the breach may have been overstated at the time.
According to Clare O’Donoghue Velikic, a former Facebook executive, it is also unlikely that CA alone could have even aided the Congress in winning the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“It’s hard enough to persuade someone to buy a pair of shoes. Voters cannot be swayed so easily,” said Velikic, who worked at Facebook from 2010 to 2019 and had founded the social media giant’s first political advertising team in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
She had worked with political parties from multiple countries in the above mentioned regions, including the UK government, to ensure they used Facebook ads effectively for their campaigns.
“What CA was doing was building these psychographic profiles using FB-policy-violating techniques (i.e. scraping friend data, that shady survey of likes and interests they ran, etc.) and then selling these profiles as a way of getting into the brains of individual people and knowing exactly what button to push (message-wise) to persuade them,” said Velikic, who is based in Ireland, in an email interview to ThePrint.
“…a significant swing in voting intention or behaviour is very hard to deliver solely through digital ads,” she added.
‘Digital campaign tools alone unlikely to influence elections’
According to The New York Times, which was one of the first publications to break the story, CA had harvested Facebook data of millions of users to create psychological profiles to sell to election campaigns.
Velikic, who now runs her own digital political campaign consultancy ODV Digital in Ireland, however, highlighted that digital campaign tactics in isolation are not enough to influence elections.
“I don’t think any single campaign tactic — or any one agency or partner or consultancy — is enough to fundamentally change the outcome of an election,” she said.
According to her, CA did not win every campaign they worked on. Most significantly, Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016.
“To improve a significant difference in seat wins you’d need to be looking at the full campaign apparatus — from polling and research to grassroots organising and field canvassing, top line policies and policy messaging, and yes, including digital strategies such as those used by CA,” said Velikic.
Thus, she added, it is unlikely that the London-based firm would have been able to sway the 2019 elections in Congress’ favour, especially when it won only 52 seats compared to BJP’s 303 seats.
Velikic also highlighted that in a similar manner, it is also unlikely that a digital firm like CA would have been able to improve Congress’ prospects in the recently-concluded Bihar election where it won just 19 out of 70 seats.
Digital voter tools ‘hyped’
Velikic’s views were echoed by Indian election experts.
Gaurav Rathore, co-founder of political consultancy firm Political Edge that worked on the JD(U) campaign for the Bihar elections, said that in places where internet penetration is already low, using social media to target voters will not work.
“It is unlikely a service like Cambridge Analytica could help in voter manipulation in a country like India where nearly half the population is yet to get on the internet,” he told ThePrint
Similarly, a senior Congress aide who worked on the party’s campaign for the 2019 elections, stated that the impact of digital voter targeting tools was “hyped beyond what we see in reality” and it was a hype driven by the tool vendor.
“At some point we need to stop collating information about the voter and focus on the content. I’d rather spend more on creating quality content,” said the Congress worker, who did not wish to be named.
While he refused to comment on why Congress didn’t purchase CA’s services, he confirmed that the pitch was rejected by the party.
Cambridge Analytica, or rather its parent firm SCL group, also had a long association with India.
Former CA employee Christopher Wylie, who had revealed the firm’s malpractices, tweeted a document that indicated that SCL Group may have been active in India since 2003.
According to the tweet, SCL had worked on a Madhya Pradesh election in 2003 to identify swing voters. It had also supported a programme to counter “violent Jihadism” in 2007 in states like Kerala and Assam, and was involved in the campaigns of a “number of Lok Sabha candidates” in the 2009 General Election.
I've been getting a lot of requests from Indian journalists, so here are some of SCL's past projects in India. To the most frequently asked question – yes SCL/CA works in India and has offices there. This is what modern colonialism looks like. pic.twitter.com/v8tOmcmy3z
— Christopher Wylie 🏳️🌈 (@chrisinsilico) March 28, 2018
Cambridge Analytica did not ’cause’ Trump win or Brexit
Cambridge Analytica was most significantly accused of causing Trump’s win in 2016 as well as Brexit.
But Velikic noted that CA alone did not cause the two major political events.
While she did not know at the time, Velikic had worked with an ad agency AggregateIQ, which was part of CA, because her work at Facebook included working with ad agencies for the UK’s Brexit referendum.
She said that services like CA were “a slice of a complex pie” that contributed to outcomes of the 2016 US election and Brexit but were not the sole reason.
“It’s easier to say ‘CA caused this’ rather than saying ‘there’s been something rotten in our societies for 20 years and people are angry and hurt, and we didn’t even notice it till now’,” Velikic added.
Other evidence also indicates that CA’s parent company (SCL Group) exaggerated its ability.
A letter dated 2 October, from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, which was investigating the Cambridge Analytica case, states, “SCL’s own marketing material claimed they had ‘over 5,000 data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans’. However, based on what we found, it appears that this may have been an exaggeration.”