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Ex-Obama Campaign Official: Here’s How We Were Able To Mine So Much Facebook Data

They “were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

Supporters hold poster as US President Barack Obama speaks at his last campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 5, 2012.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the media blitz over an exposé by The Guardian revealing that Cambridge Analytica hired an analytics team back in 2014 to provide profile data on around 50 million Facebook users that the Guardian suggests was used to benefit the Trump campaign (which Cambridge maintains is simply untrue), past reports and new revelations about the Obama campaign similarly mining social media data have come to light.

On Monday, the Independent Journal Review, one of the websites hardest hit by Facebook’s recent newsfeed algorithm changes, highlighted a series of tweets by Carol Davidsen, former director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, in which she explained how the campaign was able to mine Facebook’s data in a way that employees for the company suggested they “wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

Davidsen began by highlighting an article about the Obama campaign’s data mining project, called “Project Targus.”

“Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing,” she wrote. “They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

“I worked on all of the data integration projects at OFA,” she wrote later. “This was the only one that felt creepy, even though we played by the rules, and didn’t do anything I felt was ugly, with the data.”

She also noted that she is “100% positive that Facebook activity recruits and staffs people that are on the other side.”

Here’s the series of tweets Davidsen published Sunday:

Here’s an excerpt from the article on “Project Targus” by Time highlighted by IJR which explains the method and strategy behind the Obama campaign’s “targeted sharing” effort, which the media praised highly back then, but which is now being widely portrayed as sinister when connected (even if falsely) to the Trump campaign:

That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the [Facebook-based app] gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” says Goff. “Who do they trust? Their friends.”

The campaign called this effort targeted sharing. And in those final weeks of the campaign, the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button. More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind. A geek squad in Chicago created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter. “We are not just sending you a banner ad,” explains Dan Wagner, the Obama campaign’s 29-year-old head of analytics, who helped oversee the project. “We are giving you relevant information from your friends.”

After the reports about Cambridge Analytica broke, Facebook’s stock declined 6.8%, with analysts citing concerns about “systemic problems” with the company’s business model. CNBC reports:

The Nasdaq composite dropped 1.8 percent to 7,344.24 in its worst day since Feb. 8 as Facebook dropped 6.8 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 335.60 points to close at 24,610.91, with Caterpillar as the worst-performing stock in the index. The S&P 500declined 1.4 percent to 2,712.92, with tech dropping 2.1 percent. Facebook was the worst-performing stock in the S&P 500 and posted its biggest one-day decline since March 2014.

Facebook fell after reports said political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was able to collect data on 50 million people’s profiles without their consent. Cambridge Analytica worked on Facebook ads with President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.

“We think this episode is another indication of systemic problems at Facebook … We see enhanced risks for the company, but no near-term tangible impact on its business,” Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research, said in a note Monday.

As for Cambridge Analytica, a new sting video was published on Monday by Channel 4 purporting show officials with the company discussing shady campaign practices.

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