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Cambridge Analytica Scandal Raises New Ethical Questions About Microtargeting


Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data to try to help Donald Trump win the presidency is also raising concerns about how political campaigns work in the digital age. NPR's Tim Mak has this look at how campaigns get personal information so they can target voters.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Cambridge Analytica is hardly the first organization to develop ways for campaigns to target individual voters.

DANIEL KREISS: It's absolutely pervasive. So microtargeting is something that's been with us for some time now. It's an old practice actually.

MAK: That's Daniel Kreiss, who teaches at the University of North Carolina's School of Media and Journalism.

KREISS: Let's say you're Donald Trump. And you want to find Democrats who might be disaffected with Hillary Clinton on an issue like abortion. You're going to use data that you have to try to figure out who those people are.

MAK: Campaigns will typically buy voter information from specialized political data firms - with information such as voter registration, where they live, their religion, their partisan affiliation, what they buy, what TV shows they watch and so on. This practice of microtargeting is part of the larger Cambridge Analytica scandal. But it's not microtargeting that's the primary scandal.

TOM BONIER: They went out, and they stole 50 million data points from Facebook users without their knowledge and used that on behalf of the Trump campaign.

MAK: That's Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist who leads TargetSmart, a political data firm.

BONIER: I'm not aware of this happening at any other point with any other campaign.

MAK: But because Cambridge Analytica was using misappropriated data for microtargeting purposes, questions about ethics and privacy are being raised about the underlying practice, says Kreiss.

KREISS: The thing about this scandal is that it has brought into public view a lot of things that people just had no idea was just the standard way of operating and doing things. And people get a little bit, you know, creeped out by that.

MAK: Dave Carney, a Republican operative who worked on data strategy for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, is crying foul that the general practice of targeting voters through the use of Facebook data, which was seen as innocuous when used by the 2012 Obama campaign, now raises such alarm when associated with the Trump campaign.

DAVE CARNEY: There's a complete double standard.

MAK: Here's Ethan Roeder, who was data director for Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

ETHAN ROEDER: The use of microtargeting is probably very similar from Obama's 2008 campaign, the 2012 campaign - either the Hillary Clinton campaign or the Trump campaign in 2016.

MAK: But Roeder says that unlike Cambridge Analytica, they followed the rules when they obtained data from microtargeting.

ROEDER: The Obama campaign in 2012 always was very explicit about what they were doing. They went directly to supporters of the campaign. They asked them explicitly to grant them permission to this information.

MAK: And there's good reason for the interest in such specific information about private individuals. The habits of Americans are getting increasingly fragmented. And it's harder for campaigns to find one place and one message that reaches a broad swath of receptive voters.

ROEDER: People don't tune in to watch the same three network shows at night. People increasingly do things like time shift their shows or watch new platforms like Netflix, etc. In that broad context, data becomes a lot more important because you have to just try to figure out how do you get people's attention.

MAK: And there are plenty of legal ways for campaigns to get information about voters even if some people might feel like this is an invasion of privacy. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON AND SADAT X'S "1999 (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.