Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Did Facebook Break The Law To Help Obama Win In 2012?

Editorials | Investor's Business Daily

Elections: Facebook now faces myriad legal actions for its apparent misuse of private data on its members. 

But one possible legal problem that isn't getting any attention involves whether Facebook (FB) made, and the Obama campaign accepted, illegal "in-kind" contributions to Obama's 2012 re-election effort.

As we noted earlier, the Obama campaign's use of Facebook data dwarfed anything Trump did. 

Cambridge Analytica purchased data from an academic, who gathered it in 2014 through an app that said the data would only be used for academic purposes. There's no question that was misleading.

But by the time the general election rolled around, the Trump campaign had dumped Cambridge as a consultant, which means the data Cambridge bought had no impact on the general election.

About a million people let the campaign gather not only data on themselves, but on all their friends, who didn't know their data was being harvested as well — a number that could easily have reached 190 million, which, at the time, was about equal to every active Facebook user in the U.S.

Obama's tech gurus were able to match this rich treasure trove of personal data — likes, dislikes, photos, etc. — with other databases, creating the largest and most detailed profiles on voters ever assembled.

And the campaign aggressively used its unique access to influence millions of people the campaign identified as "persuadable," sending them highly targeted campaign messages that appeared to come from their Facebook friends, rather than the Obama campaign.

Obama's people saw this as a massive advantage, telling the press after the election that it was "the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for the campaign." 

The press, in turn, heralded Obama for his brilliance at leveraging social media to activate voters and win an election at a time when its approval ratings were low and the economy was doing poorly.

Apparently, Facebook knew its user data was being harvested en masse, but didn't care.

After the Cambridge Analytica story broke, an Obama campaign staffer, Carol Davidsen, tweeted about how "Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn't stop us once they realized what we were doing." By "whole social graph," she presumably meant profiles of every Facebook user in the U.S.

She went on to tell the Washington Post that "We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile, and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all."

She also said that Facebook officials came to the campaign offices after the election recruiting Obama's tech team, and that "they 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."

This wasn't entirely new news, by the way. The New York Times reported in 2013, in another glowing piece on Obama's tech team, how "The campaign's exhaustive use of Facebook triggered the site's internal safeguards."

Facebook's response, according to one campaign official: "They'd sigh and say, 'You can do this as long as you stop doing it on Nov. 7.'"

That's where the potential legal trouble starts. 

Despite all the hosannas for Obama's technical prowess, the arrangement between the campaign and Facebook might have been outside the law.

According to Heritage Foundation election expert Hans von Spakovsky, federal law "bans corporations from making 'direct or indirect' contributions to federal candidates."

That ban, he says, doesn't just include cash, but anything of value. "In other words, corporations cannot provide federal candidates with free services of any kind."

He goes on, if "Facebook gave the Obama campaign free access to this type of data when it normally does not do so for other entities — or usually charges for such access — then Facebook would appear to have violated the federal ban on in-kind contributions by a corporation. And the Obama campaign may have violated the law by accepting such a corporate contribution."

To be sure, von Spakovsky isn't saying that Facebook or Obama did break the law, only that, given what Davidsen has now admitted (and so far as we know, no one from Facebook has disputed her claims), the Federal Election Commission, if not the Justice Dept., should investigate.

"Carol Davidsen's admissions should provide a sufficient basis for opening a federal investigation of what may have been a serious violation of the law," he concludes.

We agree. 

And if the mainstream press weren't so pro-Obama and anti-Trump, you'd be hearing a lot more people besides von Spakovsky calling for such an investigation.