Good Friday Morning! Washington DC continues to focus on porn stars and who gets to be on the next episode of White House cabinet official apprentice. Were you to drop any of these headlines on yourself around 5-10 years ago; you’d be shocked. I’m going to continue ignoring the porn star story until it turns into something serious, like allegations of blackmail or some other issue that involves criminal culpability. Until then, it’s just CNN’s latest fad.
Before moving on, I want to highlight a tidbit from a New York Times story on John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster. It’s one of the more amazing anecdotes I’ve ever read from this White House:
Mr. Bolton, who will take office April 9, has met regularly with Mr. Trump to discuss foreign policy. Though he has been on a list of candidates for the post since the beginning of the administration, officials said Mr. Trump has hesitated, in part because of his negative reaction to Mr. Bolton’s walrus-style mustache.
The Trump White House, ladies and gentlemen.
This week I’m covering the story surrounding Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and why there’s far more to that story than meets the eye (going back practically to the formation of Facebook). I’m also following up on what can only be termed as the beginning of a trade war between the US and China. Links follow.
New this week at the Conservative Institute
Something that can get irksome in political arguments is the casual approach to words and their definitions (one of the reasons I enjoy law). It’s far more accurate to refer to the pro-choice side as merely pro-abortion because that’s what they are in the end. It’s not about choice, it’s ending another human life on arbitrary terms.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is one of the strangest agencies in the entire federal government. Democrats designed it to be an agency of one, almost a second, unanswerable executive branch. Now, Elizabeth Warren, one of the primary defenders of the CFPB and Dodd-Frank outraged that those same agencies, now headed by Republicans, are unanswerable to Congress.
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Privacy
The whole story of what Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign allegedly did with Facebook’s data hits an odd sweet spot for me on experience and knowledge. From 2006 – 2012 I got to see the Republican Party’s version of data mining and technological innovation, and I watched how Democrats, especially in 2012, ran laps around Republicans on social media targeting.
Long story short, Republicans didn’t have a functioning data operation until 2016. Everything before 2016 and after 2004 was a mess.
Democrats and Facebook are trying to keep everything focused on Cambridge Analytica, the British data analytics firm (more on them in a moment), and the Trump campaign. The reason is simple, it makes it seem like someone other than Facebook did something wrong. Before jumping into all the idiocies with this subject, let’s establish a timeline, as the Wall Street Journal has done:
The Cambridge Analytica crisis has its roots in a 2007 decision by Facebook to open access to its so-called social graph — the web of friend connections, “likes” and other Facebook activity that knit users together.
Although Facebook had rules stating the terms under which developers could accumulate data, it appeared not to be able to ensure its rules were being followed, developers and former employees said. In interviews, developers said Facebook was sometimes unclear about how they could use the data they gathered from the platform.
“Their enforcement mechanism is, if they notice it, they tell you to stop,” says Nick Soman, founder and chief executive of the health-care company Decent, who has accessed Facebook’s data in the past.
In 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported that online tracking firm RapLeaf Inc. was using Facebook data to build databases of personal user information and selling the data to political advertisers and others, in some cases transmitting users’ ID numbers. At the time, RapLeaf said the transmission of the data was inadvertent and stopped.
The episode prompted Facebook to build a way to tag a developers’ data so that if it leaked, the company could trace it back to the source, according to a person familiar with the matter. This analysis could only be done after Facebook was alerted to a potential violation, the person said.
In 2011, Facebook users started complaining to the social network that some of their old profile data was inexplicably posted for anyone to view on a little-known search site called Profile Engine, court records allege. Facebook sued the developer two years later, saying it had violated its agreement, but not before the details of about 420 million user profiles were collected, according to the court records.
Early on, almost anyone could create a Facebook app and access a trove of data about the site’s users. President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, for example, created a voter-outreach app that found other potential supporters among its users’ connections on Facebook by plugging directly into the company’s platform.
In 2014, Facebook said it would restrict developers’ access to many data points about app users’ friends, citing privacy concerns. But even after the policy went into effect in 2015, Facebook couldn’t proactively keep track of how developers used previously downloaded data, according to current and former employees. By 2016, Facebook had changed its platform rules, making it impossible for other campaigns to do the same.
First, note that Cambridge Analytica didn’t happen in isolation. Tens of thousands of companies, political campaigns, and other groups used Facebook as a data mining operation going back to when they opened their platform.
Second, This shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. From Facebook’s perspective, you, the user, aren’t the customer, you’re the product. They sell you, your screen time, and data to advertisers and marketers. I know Mark Zuckerberg painted a lovely picture saying, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.” But he runs a publically traded company responsible to his shareholders to prove the company is profitable. The only thing he has that’s sellable is the screen time of your eyeballs the data of what your eyes look at every day.
There’s a reason Facebook’s stock price took a nosedive this past week. Traders are weighing the possibility that Facebook’s main cash cow, it’s data mining ability for advertisers, may lose significant value. Facebook could restrict practices or face new federal regulations.
Third, there is no universe where Facebook was surprised by what Cambridge Analytica or anyone else did with this information. And we know this first hand from the Obama campaign’s vaunted data and analytics operation. Carol Davidsen, former director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, tweeted out multiple links and quotes from the 2012 campaign on how Facebook openly knew what Obama For America was doing:
Davidsen began by highlighting an article about the Obama campaign’s data mining project, called “Project Targus.”
“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,” she wrote. “They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”
“I worked on all of the data integration projects at OFA,” she wrote later. “This was the only one that felt creepy, even though we played by the rules, and didn’t do anything I felt was ugly, with the data.”
She also noted that she is “100% positive that Facebook activity recruits and staffs people that are on the other side.”
Mitt Romney’s campaign was castigated in 2012 for not being able to master the same lessons from social media. Romney’s data operation was woefully inadequate. I was on the ground in Virginia that year, as a legal volunteer, and watched as their entire technological operation in that battleground state collapsed. Nothing worked. And their data and analytics people missed the voters Obama’s campaign found and got out to vote, which is one of many reasons Romney’s internal polls were so wrong in 2012 (his polls showed him winning late).
All that said: Facebook knew precisely what was happening, refused to police anything, and just took the profits. Take a look at Mark Zuckerberg’s post. He mentions 2007, and his timeline magically jumps to 2013 and focuses solely on Cambridge Analytica. In that big six-year gap, everyone else was mining and keeping Facebook’s data.
There’s a word for what Zuckerberg and Facebook are doing here, and it’s called: dissembling.
If any wrongdoing occurred in this case, it’s all Facebook’s fault. They helped out and allowed everything wrong to happen on their watch, and in the case of the Obama campaign, they gave consent. Cambridge Analytica may have committed fraud, but Facebook is the one playing fast and loose with their user’s private data.
Cambridge Analytica is an incompetent organization – not a bogeyman
The second big issue with this entire story is that people are pretending Cambridge Analytica was an essential arm of the Trump campaign. It wasn’t. It’s staffed by morons, as you can plainly see by the BBC undercover video. They aren’t playing 4D chess. They’re just idiots.
Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s campaigns hired and fired Cambridge Analytica for the same reason: they wanted access to the Mercer family’s political money and super-PACs. Once they had that access, they dumped Cambridge Analytica like a bad date. And this isn’t just my opinion; you can see this in how both operatives around Cruz and Trump’s campaigns talked about Cambridge Analytica.
You can’t point to any single area where Cambridge Analytica provided useful services to their American clients. Just following Facebook’s story, you can tell Cambridge Analytica was way behind the curve on social media targeting.
Trump hired Cambridge Analytica at the same time he retained Kellyanne Conway, both seen, at the time, as overtures at tying up Cruz’s base and monetary support from the Mercer family. Conway was a Cruz campaign supporter, as were the Mercers until Cruz suspended his campaign in June. By July, Trump had locked up both groups, which also cut off any means Cruz had of trying to tie up shenanigans at the GOP convention.
If the Mercer family doesn’t shift towards Trump in June of 2016, you probably see a more organized attempt at a convention coup (as was rumored with Cruz, leading up to his convention speech). The Mercer family is also rumored to fund The Federalist website, a conservative news magazine. The Federalist also notably shifted hard towards Trump around the same time, and not in just a general “Trump is the nominee now” kind of way (this shift is an ongoing discussion topic in conservative punditry circles – what happened to the Federalist?).
TL;DR version of all the above: Facebook is lying. Trump’s campaign did what everyone else was doing with Facebook. It’s hard to argue any of that had any impact at all. There’s more hard evidence Jim Comey had an effect on the election than Facebook’s data. And Cambridge Analytica isn’t some super-villain organization; it’s more like Dumb and Dumber.
Cambridge Analytica likely committed some form of fraud when they took the data from Facebook. But what Cambridge Analytica did is a microcosm of what Facebook has long let other companies and campaigns do freely.
From Tariffs to Trade Wars, what’s next?
A few weeks ago I wrote about how the steel tariffs shut down manufacturing plants in small towns. Since then, the President has expanded the tariffs list exponentially, the latest round targeting specific Chinese imports. The Chinese are weighing their responses, with the initial proposal being tariffs on 128 different products.
As I wrote for the Conservative Institute, there are reasons the US should enforce stricter trading guidelines with the Chinese. I support, for instance, the President’s decision to block the takeover of US business Broadcom. There’s a well defined national security reason for taking precautions with the Chinese (for a novelization of the real-world issues with the Chinese, see “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” it’s fiction with hundreds of footnotes relying on the expertise of national defense experts).
Here’s the problem with where we are right now. When it comes to China, we’re not just pushing for fairer trade. Trump has entered an economic war, well beyond trade, with China. And depending on how fast this heats up, we could be looking at the new cold war, fought through the State Department and the President’s twitter feed.
From purely a national defense and foreign relations angle, there are some great reasons why hitting China is the right move. The question, as always, with this administration, whether or not they’re equipped to handle this kind of fight. I don’t expect the Chinese just to roll over, just as I don’t expect that from the Russians.
Both China and Russia can, if they want, play the long game against Trump. Both countries have leaders who are dictators who can just stall and ignore Trump until he’s gone. In the meantime, the trade war will push up prices on consumer goods everywhere. And all the good from the tax reform legislation risks being negated.
We’re in uncharted waters. I’m hoping the country heads in the right direction. In the short term, expect more stock market swings and small manufacturing towns to feel the squeeze.
Links of the week
Sorry, Facebook was never ‘free’ – John Podhoretz, The New York Post
Trump, the FBI, and the Final Debasement of American Politics: No one wins in the downhill race that started with the Clintons, and will end in the cultural gutter. – Robert W. Merry, The American Conservative
Trump Hacked the Media Right Before Our Eyes – Ross Douthat, The New York Times
Let Us Now Praise President Trump (Because Republicans assume he will listen to nothing else.) – Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg View
Republicans May Come to Regret Their Silence on Trump – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
For Black Boys, Family Structure Still Matters – W. Bradford Wilcox, The Institute for Family Studies
Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys – The Upshot, The New York Times
Fifty-five years after historic NCAA title run, Loyola legends lament country’s racial regression – Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports
Nazism for Hipsters: European Identarianism is just neo-Nazism with good marketing. – Bill Wirtz, The Weekly Standard
Bunnies and the Art of Total Political War – Jonathan S. Tobin, National Review
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON — Concluding they had finally located the smoking gun, 379,000 Reddit users are reported to have simultaneously developed the belief that they had found the missing link in the investigation into alleged ties between Russia and President Trump’s 2016 campaign. “This is it—this is going to blow everything wide open!” the thousands of amateur investigators said to themselves, each pointing to a completely different piece of information in a publicly available document that they were convinced was the single piece of proof that would, once and for all, expose the truth. “I just found the key to the whole thing right here. As soon as everyone sees this, the dominoes will start to topple and it will only be a matter of time. Oh, how the mighty will fall!” Sources confirmed that after publishing their findings as one of thousands of comments on one of thousands of posts on one of thousands of subreddits, each of the 379,000 users was sitting back and waiting for accolades.
Thanks for reading!