Everybody knows that Steve Bannon helped Donald Trump win the presidency, but very few people know how he did it. But now thanks to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, information has come out that shows how Bannon and others supporting the Trump campaign obtained data from over 50 million Facebook users without their express permission.
This data was then used by the research firm Cambridge Analytica (Cambridge) to influence American voters and wage a “culture war” during the 2016 election. Wylie was the director and co-founder of Cambridge.
According to Wylie, the Cambridge research project was extremely important to Steve Bannon, the former head of the right-wing media company Breitbart News. After Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States Bannon resigned from Breitbart to work as the chief executive of Trump’s campaign.
Wylie said that Bannon had a strong desire to use the personal data obtained from Facebook profiles (without users’ permission) to “influence and galvanize the views of the American public.”
According to Wylie, “Steve wanted weapons for his culture war, that’s what he wanted. We offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do, which was change the culture of America.”
Wylie said his whistleblowing was a crisis of conscience. “It weighs on me that I played a pivotal role in setting up a company that I think has done a lot of harm to the democratic process in a lot of countries,” Wylie said.
According to Wylie, political “preferences” — how a Facebook user would vote — could be determined from the data in their Facebook profiles. Cambridge used this data to not only predict how people would vote, but also to INFLUENCE their votes.
This is what Bannon did when he used Cambridge to help Trump win in 2016. They took data from 50 million Facebook profiles and used it to create what amounted to a propaganda campaign to change people’s thinking about their candidate.
“Whenever you go and you “like” something on Facebook you are giving me a clue as to who you are as a person,” Wylie said. “And so all of this can be captured very easily and run through an algorithm that learns who you are.”
According to Wylie, Bannon used research from Cambridge and replicated it on a massive scale to influence American voters in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Billionaire Republican donors Robert and Rebecca Mercer initially put Bannon in contact with Cambridge. The Mercers own a significant percentage of the stock of Cambridge.
When Bannon was its chief executive, the Trump campaign paid $5 million to Cambridge to use their system to target Facebook users who were likely to support Trump for president. Just days before the 2016 election Cambridge reported that it had data “on 230 million American adults with approximately 4,000 data points” on each of them.
Facebook said in a statement that “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. In light of new reports that the data was not destroyed, we are suspending these three parties from Facebook, pending further information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties.”
Facebook has insisted all along that what Cambridge did was NOT a data breach since users “technically consented” — via their privacy settings — to allow Cambridge to obtain their personal data.
This is a legally dubious position however since “technical consent” is not the same as ACTUAL consent. Facebook users did not know that by using Facebook they were agreeing that their profile data could be used to influence their political preferences or how they would vote.
Data obtained by Cambridge included not just information from Facebook users’ profiles, but from Facebook profiles of their friends and contacts as well. And all of these people certainly did not give permission for Cambridge to use their data in its research and then make it available to Bannon and the Trump campaign.
It’s not clear that Facebook was knowingly complicit in the use of its data to help Bannon’s influence campaign which most people believe played a very large role in helping Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. If we can believe Facebook, they have taken steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If that is true, Facebook will no longer serve unwittingly as a tool for right-wing politicians to gain political control. The results of the elections in 2018 and 2020 should be very different as a result.
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.