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How Does Cambridge Analytica Flap Compare With Obama's Campaign Tactics?


The data company Cambridge Analytica stands accused of gathering people's Facebook data through misrepresenting what it was for and, in the case of millions of users, without their consent. The purpose was to influence their vote in favor of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Now, conservatives have drawn parallels to the data operation of the Obama campaign in 2012. And to talk about that, we're joined now by Betsy Hoover. She was the online organizing director for Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign. Welcome to the program.

BETSY HOOVER: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So take us back to the 2012 campaign. Facebook was central to your digital strategy. Briefly tell us how you gathered data from Facebook and what you did with it.

HOOVER: Yeah. So it's important to remember that, you know, Facebook and technology has changed a ton over the past 10 years. So in 2008, Facebook was one-tenth the size of what it was in 2012, for example. But Facebook was a huge part of our digital strategy. We had a, you know, massive number of people following Barack Obama on Facebook. We also, though, knew that the vast majority of voters, something like 97 percent of the U.S. electorate, could be reached if everyone who was following Barack Obama on Facebook shared a piece of content.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. Ninety-seven percent?

HOOVER: Yeah. And so that's a super powerful tool.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So conservatives say this about your strategy. And this was written in the National Review. The Obama team created social interactions you wouldn't have otherwise had. So you did get access through Facebook, apparently, of the friends of people who logged onto your site without their consent. And you used that information, right? So what's different than what Cambridge Analytica did?

HOOVER: Well, their statement in the National Review is factually inaccurate. So the app that everyone's referring to in this moment was an app called Targeted Sharing. It was an app that we created on Facebook that fully followed Facebook's terms of service. And any individual could decide to use the app. When they clicked on the app, a screen would pop up that would say what data they're authorizing the app was giving us access to and exactly how we were going to use that data. And so at that time, it was totally legitimate on Facebook to say you're giving us access to your social network. You're giving us access to your friends on Facebook.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that Facebook changed its terms of service, so that is no longer the case. But back then, it was.

HOOVER: Back then, it was. It was totally legal and something that we were allowed to do. But we were really minimalist in how we used that data. So, you know, we got your list of friends. And then we matched it to our model, our list of voters that we didn't build with Facebook data. We built with voter history and, you know, all of the other data points that Democratic campaigns use to build models. But we matched the data of your friends to that model and then reflected it back to the person who had authorized the app and said, if you want to reach out to your friends about this election on Facebook, here are the ones that you should reach out to first. And that was it...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you gave them names of their friends that might be persuadable?

HOOVER: Yeah. We basically just ordered the list that they gave us, and we didn't use that data for any other purpose. So the difference between that and what Cambridge Analytica did in my mind is that it's a totally different ballpark. We had consent. It was within Facebook's terms of service, and we were very minimalist with how we used that data.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cambridge Analytica was trying to build these psychographic profiles and use that to microtarget people with ads that would push them in a certain direction. If we set aside the alleged unethical ways in which Cambridge Analytica obtained their data, what would you say about how they used their data? It seems to be where campaigns are headed.

HOOVER: Yeah. I mean, honestly, that doesn't concern me. And I know that people have different feelings on this. But the goal of campaigns is to help voters understand your candidate and what your candidate represents in a way that resonates with the voter. And so, you know, targeting messages based on what the campaign knows about voting segments feels smart to me. And it's not different at all from what companies are doing when they're marketing products to you. And, yeah, it is something that we should be exploring on both sides and figuring out if that can help us, you know, run campaigns that are authentically meeting voters where they are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the average Internet user actually understands what's happening to their data?

HOOVER: I think we're getting smarter about it. And that's part of what this debate is about. But a lot of times, the answer is no. You can give your data away on the Internet, and companies and campaigns and lots of organizations are going to use it in a variety of ways. And so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they benefit from that ignorance.

HOOVER: Yeah. A little bit. And so I think that as - like, for us, as Americans, like, my message to the public is, like, we should be smarter about how we're using the Internet and where our data's going. And, you know, some of my data I give away. That's fine. I would rather see products that I like than products I don't like. Or I'd rather see candidates that I'm more likely to vote for than not. That's OK. But it is important that you know where your data's going, and that's part of being, I think, educated Internet users.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Should it be legislated?

HOOVER: My sense is a lot of this should be legislated. Like, I think it's hard to say to Facebook or Google or Amazon or the Obama campaign or the Trump campaign, it is your responsibility to decide what data is good to have access to and what isn't. Like, technology is a huge part of the way that people are engaging in our public space. And we should have laws that legislate pieces of that because this is the space that is playing a huge role in how people interact with society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Betsy Hoover worked on the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. And she's a founding partner of the political consulting firm 270 Strategies and a founder of Higher Ground Labs. Thank you so much.

HOOVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.