Tuesday, 7 November 2017

More on how Big Data didn't win it

Buzzfeed published an article back in February about the 'Big Data' thing and Donald Trump's campaign:
Several people who worked directly with Cambridge Analytica told BuzzFeed News that despite its sales pitch and public statements, it never provided any proof that the technique was effective or that the company had the ability to execute it on a large scale. “Anytime we ever wanted to test anything as far as psychographic was concerned, they would get very hesitant,” said one former campaign staffer. “At no point did they provide us any documentation that it would work.”
Now I suppose that, if you're a conspiracy theorist, this can be dismissed as the campaign people throwing chaff out the back of the plane but it reinforces for me the weaknesses of the Cambridge Analytica claims. The article sets out some of these claims - or at least the ones that the company has broadcast proudly - including the use of 'psychographics'.

We know (because Cambridge Analytical tell us so) that the company has a 'psychographic profile' derived either from, questionably-sourced, Facebook data or else the company's own surveys. For this to be usable it has to be translated into a system that can be applied to the whole population (or at least that population in very small units). It seems that the Cambridge Analytica CEO is saying they have such a system because he claims the company had “profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America — 220 million people.”

The real question here isn't whether or not such a profile exists (and if it is based solely on Facebook it doesn't since over 40% of Americans aren't using Facebook and a large part of those who are are irregular or infrequent users even before privacy choices are considered) but whether it is in any way either meaningful or effective as a marketing tool. I've a feeling that it is little better than standard geodemographics built on Richard Webber's 'birds of a feather flock together' principle. The observations of people involved in the Trump campaign seem to bear this out - Cambridge Analytica's work perhaps did provide useful targeting insights but didn't then provide any useable means of directly reaching these new targets.
In marketing pitches, two GOP operatives recalled, Nix has claimed his company has access to proprietary information that includes Facebook data. One of the operatives said the data was too old to be helpful and couldn’t be updated. Others said they’d received a similar pitch, but Nix was too vague about the details for them to evaluate what the data really was. None of the campaign staffers BuzzFeed News spoke with said Cambridge Analytica’s proprietary data had played a key role in any decision-making.
There may indeed be some strategic value in extensive data analysis but it is not the salvation. Indeed, there's some suggestion that Hillary Clinton's campaign was even more driven by data analytics than Trump's campaign:
What Ada did, based on all that data, aides said, was run 400,000 simulations a day of what the race against Trump might look like. A report that was spit out would give campaign manager Robby Mook and others a detailed picture of which battleground states were most likely to tip the race in one direction or another — and guide decisions about where to spend time and deploy resources.

The use of analytics by campaigns was hardly unprecedented. But Clinton aides were convinced their work, which was far more sophisticated than anything employed by President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, gave them a big strategic advantage over Trump.
And we know what happened here - Clinton targeted either places she was winning easily or places where chaotic information led the campaign to believe it was doing better than it was. There seems to have been a deal more art in the Trump campaign than the conspiracy theorists want, with those involved using data more cautiously than was the case for the Democrats. Just as with the EU referendum, we see people wanting to deny the failings of their own campaign by suggesting the matter was determined by devious, sinister, billionaire-funded legerdemain. This problem continues today and, if anything, is expanding as Russian bots, Macedonian fake news and manipulative 'right wing' media are added to the things blamed for the 'wrong' result.

The same message needs to go to Democrats as I sent to Remain supporters in the UK:
At some point the rump of disappointed remain voters will stop trying to find some sinister external force - Russians, American data companies, Facebook - that explains why we voted to leave and recognise that, in truth, we voted to leave because the EU is a distant, anonymous, unapproachable, corrupt and interfering undemocratic institution. That's it - all of it. And if you ask people a slightly different question, they'll tell you that London is also a distant, anonymous, unapproachable, corrupt and interfering undemocratic place too. One run by and for people with more connection to New York or Paris than Barnsley or Stoke. Perhaps those still angst-ridden by us leaving can begin to learn this?

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