Cambridge Analytica speaks a big conversation. "We can use big data to understand exactly what messages each particular group within a target audience needs to hear," said Alexander Nix, the company's executive director, at a marketing conference last year after The Wall Street Journal
Documents distributed by SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, claimed to be "experts in measurable behavioral change". "The company claimed its methodology" allows us to understand how people think and identify what they would do to change their way of thinking and the associated election patterns.
Such knowledge would enable accurate, targeted advertising, and exactly that's where Facebook sells its own advertisers like Procter & Gamble. "With the words and Likes from Facebook, I can tell a lot about your political orientation and thus show you an ad that you're likely to answer (which is your biggest concern: guns, gays, greens), "Lyle Ungar, a Pennsylvania University professor of psychology researching social media usage, writes in an email.
But are these ads changing after they understand the nuances of individuals and pay for targeted marketing? It's unlikely. We are not as manipulative as Cambridge Analytica would like to believe.
Scheufele refers to Fundamental Political Science Research by Columbia University sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. "They showed in the 1940s that most campaign effects are really reinforcing effects," he explains. Once someone has an opinion, he buys messages that support his already existing point of view. But ads do not really make us think differently.
"Very rarely will I sit there and say, 'I am a Clinton fan, now I see all those Pro Trump messages, let me choose Trump & # 39 ;, says Scheufele. "What happens instead is that it strengthens and mobilizes constituencies, and the impact is somewhat limited."
Such advertising is not completely irrelevant. Finally, the early primaries can be decided by a relatively small number of voters, and the mobilization of certain groups can have a decisive effect. But unlike what Cambridge Analytica might suggest, there is no precise and detailed science that suggests that if you show certain advertisements to particular personalities at a particular time, then it will definitely have a strong impact. After all, Cambridge Analytica, who was hired by the Ted-Cruz campaign could not make him president .
The research of Cambridge Analytica can not be replicated scientifically founded, says Scheufele, not least because both the data and the algorithms are constantly changing. Facebook is constantly changing its algorithm and new users are leaving and joining.
"The claim to effectiveness is largely unproven," says Scheufele. "There is little scientific research, it can not be, if I wanted to replicate the kind of work that Cambridge Analytica claims to be, I would not be able to do it, the algorithms that led to its conclusions no longer exist have changed, the population has changed and so on. "
No credible scientific paper would provide the basis for Cambridge Analytica's proposals that it rely on psychological techniques to get people to vote for a particular candidate. Psychologists in this field have well-educated guesses about the specific work the scientists at Cambridge Analytica relied on – and none of them suggest that the degree of manipulation promised by the data firm is possible.
Much of Cambridge Analytica's work has been attempted by other political groups, notes Scheufele – including Barack Obama. His 2012 campaign hired "Predictive Modeling and Data Mining Scientists," according to job advertisements reading "Modeling analysts are tasked with predicting American constituency behavior, and these models will help identify which voters rely on turnout and persuasion, where to buy advertising and how to best approach digital media. "Obama's team even placed ads in video games during 2008 election.
The basic idea behind certain target groups to be quite old: Procter & Gamble sponsored the creation of "soap operas" in the afternoon, "says Scheufele, because the company literally wanted to sell soap to a certain audience – women doing housework at home- and so created the shows to attract a certain demographic.
Cambridge Analytica – and Facebook itself – just takes that to the next level, and it knows about us and our social groups – which is vital because social contagion is massive That's why Google has always tried to buy a social network that was actually successful, "says Scheufele." They tried Orkut, they tried Google Plus, they bought Waze for a billion dollars, though they already had Google Maps. Why? Because they want not only data about me, but also about all the friends who surround me, because this I can target my potential vulnerabilities much closer. "
Thanks to social media, advertisers can target us and learn more about us than ever before." It's sociology and psychology together, "Scheufele says." We're not targeting segments anymore, we're targeting individuals. " the psychological techniques that influence us are neither as precise nor as powerful as the chiefs of Cambridge Analytica have promised.