06. The Scandal: Cambridge Analytica

If you want to fundamentally change society – you first have to break it. And it‘s only when you break it, is, when you can remote the pieces into your own vision of a new society.

Christopher Wylie, data scientist and former employee at Cambridge-Analytica

A foretaste that Facebook can do more than just marketing became known in 2014: Two years earlier, Facebook conducted a secret experiment on around 700,000 unknowing users. The question was whether it was possible to put the user in a certain mood by means of corresponding feeds. This went beyond the previous practice of data collection, because now Facebook was actively intervening in the users’ emotional lives.

The outrage over this successful experiment was great, because even if it was within the legal framework, it was still considered “unethical”. More importantly, however, were the insights it gave Facebook, namely that “large-scale emotional contagion via social media” is possible.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal about the misuse of user data became public in 2018, a new dimension of the power of algorithms came to light: Here, user data was used on a grand scale to actively influence political opinion, and thus successfully manipulate the US presidential election.

How it came about

As early as 2013, Steve Bannon, later Donald Trump’s advisor and head of the right-leaning website Breitbart News Network, contacted SCL Group (later known as Cambridge-Analytica) – a company that specialised in influencing elections. Bannon’s goal was to target potential voters on social media and feed them manipulative information.

And it worked like this: First, users were lured with an app developed by psychologist Dr Aleksandr Kogan called “This is Your Digital Life”, which was already widely circulating on Facebook. Anyone who downloaded the app granted access to their own data. As a result, all of the user’s actions were tracked, stored and analysed on a large scale. For example, search queries, comments, status updates, private messages and “likes” provided very precise information about the respective user. From this, individual personality profiles could be created.


This Facebook user data formed the basis for the development of the algorithms, which were able to generate special, manipulative feeds that were tailored to the personality of each individual user in terms of wording and emotional state. In addition, a “team of experts” created fake websites and fake blogs with opinion-forming content, each of which could only be found by the desired target groups.

This “whisper post” strategy – every user had different information – fundamentally undermined any form of community discourse. About 60 million user profiles on Facebook were affected.


How the Apps You Use Impact Your Daily Life and Emotions

Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower – The Guardian Interview (Film)

Dunkle Machenschaften – Wie mit Daten die US-Wahlen beeinflusst werden (Film)

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