Don’t Blame Ted Cruz for Facebook’s Sins

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A Guardian headline today blares: “Ted Cruz using firm that harvested data on millions of unwitting Facebook users.” Interesting! But you sure have to read a long way into the story to figure out what the real problem is. Is it the fact that Cambridge Analytica—the firm Cruz is using—compiled “psychographic profiles” of Facebook users? Nah. Call it what you will, but that’s practically old hat these days. Is it that fact that Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, founder of CA’s parent, paid users of Mechanical Turk a dollar to fill out a questionnaire and turn over their Facebook profiles? No again. If people want to sell their profiles for a dollar, they can do it. So what’s the problem?

Crucially, Kogan also captured the same data for each person’s unwitting friends. For every individual recruited on MTurk, he harvested information about their friends, meaning the dataset ballooned significantly in size. Research shows that in 2014, Facebook users had an average of around 340 friends.

….By summer 2014, Kogan’s company had created an expansive and powerful dataset. His business partner boasted on LinkedIn that their private outfit, Global Science Research (GSR), “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States — for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”.

Consumer research firms do this kind of stuff routinely, so there’s not really any big news here. And if there’s anyone at fault, it’s our old friend Facebook. Once again, they’re allowing people to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s default settings open users up to this kind of harvesting. Very few people ever bother to change their defaults, and Facebook knows it.

As for Cruz, there are plenty of places to get information like this. I don’t know if CA is one of the best or not. But every serious campaign does this kind of microtargeting. As Cruz explained last month, he’s a big admirer of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign strategy—which just goes to show that there’s at least one thing that Cruz and Obama agree about.

Bottom line: I don’t think Cruz really did anything wrong here. Facebook probably did. Big surprise.

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Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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