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Conservatives counter Cambridge Analytica scandal by saying Obama did the same
The Democrats who worked on Obama’s campaign have hit back.
Right-wing media pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are standing by Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics company that is reported to have mined 50 million Facebook users’ profiles without permission, in what they say is a double standard in mainstream media coverage.
The Observer and New York Times published revelations on Saturday that Cambridge Analytica had been suspended from Facebook after it was alleged that the data analytics company had violated privacy policies by collecting data on users. Since then, the company has been beset by further controversy, with more reports that allege the firm used sex and money to bribe lawmakers or influencers.
When news broke on Saturday, however, both publications spotlighted the company’s involvement with the Trump and Brexit Leave campaigns—two political initiatives affiliated with U.S. and U.K. right-wing, respectively. In reaction, conservative pundits are speculating whether the sensation around the firm is a liberal powerplay.
Some have responded by calling the media’s hostility and scrutiny of Cambridge Analytica’s practices a partisan double standard; others have cautiously sought to pass on the story altogether.
President Donald Trump’s favorite TV show, Fox and Friends, for example, didn’t cover the story at all in its March 19 edition, according to watchdog Media Matters for America.
Other shows on the Fox News network, however, did and inclined toward defending Cambridge Analytica in accompanying commentary. Fox host Greg Gutfeld, for example, said on The Five that he was “not sure it’s really Cambridge Analytica that’s at fault here.”
“A lot of it is trying to paint the Trump campaign as if they, you know, they reached into Facebook and ripped out all of this in an unethical way,” Gutfeld’s co-host Jesse Watters responded. “It’s just not true, but like you said, it’s more about Facebook and protecting their customers’ information, and obviously they didn’t do a great job about it because they didn’t let people know that their data was being mined, and I think Facebook has to answer to that.”
Those on the paranoid and reactionary fringes flat-out dismissed the story. Alex Jones of InfoWars ranted that the news was just “a giant hoax,” even linking to the death of scientist Stephen Hawking, claiming that liberals needed a new messiah and that Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie was it: “[he] has pink hair, so you know you’ve got to listen to him, and he’s gay, so you can’t question him.”
“There’s probably 20 companies in Austin bigger than Cambridge Analytica doing the same thing for Democrats, they’re the ones that dominate it all,” he continued, insisting that the data harvesting was nothing new to politics.
The response of other popular right-wing media outlets and commentators followed two developing counter-accusational narratives, both of which point comparatively to Democratic President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns for office.
Breitbart News—the outlet whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon was not only Trump’s former White House chief strategist but also a former board member at Cambridge Analytica—covered the news before pivoting to what would become its most popular article on the topic, which cites tweets by former Obama senior staffer Carol Davidsen.
Davidsen had worked as Director of Integration of Media Analytics on Obama’s 2012 campaign and wrote that “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.”
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.
— Carol Davidsen (@cld276) March 19, 2018
The Daily Wire’s editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro also carries Davidsen’s comments and reflects on Facebook’s suspension of the firm in an op-ed for the Hill.
“Facebook had no problem with such activity then. They do now,” Shapiro writes.
In its coverage, the Spectator, a British conservative-leaning pro-Brexit magazine, builds instead on Cambridge Analytica’s own tweet-storm defense to coverage from Saturday, with Obama’s “famously data driven” 2008 campaign.
“[W]hen Obama did it, such practices were written up in glowing terms. His campaign’s social media tactics were widely lauded for harvesting ‘the power of friendship’. But when Trump or Brexit do it, apparently, it’s evil,” the Spectator article reads.
“The true horror, of course, is not that sinister right-wing forces can use information people share on social media to, as Wiley puts it, ‘mindfuck’ electorates. It’s that Facebook has all this powerful information in the first place,” it continues. “And what’s odd is that people don’t seem to mind data being plundered if the beneficiaries are the perceived good guys.”
Leading Democrats who worked on the campaigns, however, are not having any of it. The hyper-partisan noise was rebutted by Michael Simon, who led analytics for Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign and managed data on voter preferences.
He slammed the comparisons, pointing out that the main charge against Cambridge Analytica is that tens of millions of Facebook users had their personal data harvested without consent.
👋 I ran the Obama 2008 data-driven microtargeting team. How dare you! We didn’t steal private Facebook profile data from voters under false pretenses. OFA voluntarily solicited opinions of hundreds of thousands of voters. We didn’t commit theft to do our groundbreaking work. https://t.co/CyVIFDB2Tz
— Michael Simon (@mbsimon) March 18, 2018
“The core difference between what the Obama campaign did and what Cambridge did is transparency. Cambridge Analytica used an app that was essentially malware—it scraped people’s data,” Simon wrote.
Political analyst Micah Sifry published a long tweet-thread that detailed how, at every step of the Obama campaign’s Facebook drive, permissions were acquired and required.
Here's the Obama permission page. Note that it only says your friends will only receive messages you choose to send them. That's good. It says nothing about information that campaign might obtain. That was bad. pic.twitter.com/7H7As54nKV
— Micah Sifry (@Mlsif) March 20, 2018
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology. He previously covered civil liberties, crime, and politics for Vice.