Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Did Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook Harvesting Decide the US Elections?

Have the Russians and Cambridge Analytica been abusing Facebook to influence the US and British elections by spreading fake news to receptive users?
Absolutely Yes!

Has this abuse had an impact on the US elections and Brexit?
Most likely not!

It becomes increasingly clear that people like Donald Trump (through his former confidant Steve Bannon) and Vladimir Putin have been (illegally) harvesting user profiles on Facebook and setting up Twitter bots to spread fakenews on Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook by its own account admitted that fake news produced by the Russians and US Alt-right proponents might have been seen by millions of users. What has not been shown, however, is what effect this has had on the actual voting behavior.

I argue that this effect has been minimal, most likely smaller than the voting margin for Trump in the US elections, and for Brexit in the UK.

While a group of researchers has done an thorough analysis of the dynamics of the spread of fake news on Twitter, they are not measuring what influence this has had on the actual voting behavior. While they found that fake news spread faster than true news, they ignore three key issues:
  1. Echo chambers: the political spectrum has become Balkanized, with people only consuming news they believe in. This effect is reinforced through fake news Twitter bots flooding the feeds of alt-right believers with fake news.
  2. The personality of Twitter users: it has been shown that Twitter users are more extrovert and neurotic than the average population, which also happen to be personality characteristics of alt-right folks.
  3. Twitter bots: today bots have become so sophisticated that it is hard to distinguish them from real people. Fake news spreaders have become adept at using them to game Twitter metrics so that their tweets score high on Twitter.

I argue that the impact of this rumormongering is vastly overrated. I think we should regard the average reader on Twitter and Facebook smarter than unquestioningly passing on whatever rumor is being served up. In my view, these messages full of half-truths and fake news supportive of Brexit and Donald Trump were mostly passed on by followers and believers of Brexit and Trump who had made up their minds well before reading these fake news items, and did not need any influencing.

A second argument comes from the harvesting of user profiles on Facebook, which enables fake news spreaders to identify user personality characteristics based on an approach our team has pioneered a long time ago, which has been also used by a group of other researchers, implemented on a large scale by another team who passed it on to Cambridge Analytica. I don’t think that knowing the personality characteristics of a Facebook user will make her/him so much more receptive to fake news – again people are smarter than that: either they have made up their mind before, or they are not likely to change their opinion because they are more Open, Conscientious, Extrovert, Agreeable, or Neurotic (this are the characteristics measured by the OCEAN personality test researchers commonly use for this type of analysis).

The best approach for fact-checking is a critical, well-informed mind. Our transparency engine offers a powerful tool to support the critical mind.