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Will the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Be the “Smoking Gun” of Donald Trump’s Watergate?

An Opinion Piece by Christian Fuchs, published by Medium

June 17, 1972: Five burglars are caught breaking into the Democractic National Commitee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex trying to steal documents and installing devices for wiretapping phones. The Watergate scandals unfolds. President Richard Nixon has to hand over tapes of conversations he recorded in the White House. An 18 minute long section of one of the tapes is missing. The “Smoking Gun” tape shows he tried to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in. In August 1974, Nixon pre-empts his impeachment by stepping down.

45 years and 9 months later: March 17, 2018. The Observer publishes an investigative story that says that Cambridge Analytica paid Global Science Research (GSR) for conducting fake online personality tests in order to obtain personal Facebook data of 50 million US-users, including likes and friendships. This massive data breach seems to have been used for targeting political ads, which manipulates democracy. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix and Facebook UK’s policy director Simon Milner both told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee’s Inquiry of Fake News in February that Cambridge Analytica had not obtained private Facebook data. The Observer reports that there is evidence that shows this is untrue and that also Facebook has known about the data breach. Lying to or misleading a parliamentary committee constitutes contempt of Parliament DCMS Committee-Chair Damien Collins MP argues that “it seems clear that he [Nix] has deliberately mislead the Committee and Parliament by giving false statements”, that Facebook’s reputation “is being damaged by stealth”, and that it is “time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page”.

The Watergate scandal took place at a time when audio tapes, first introduced by Philips in 1963, were a new medium. Deleting tapes was a major way of manipulating data. 45 years later, we have entered have entered the age of big data capitalism, in which new media are digital, online and networked. Political surveillance back then targeted single high level officials’ phones. Surveillance today is big business. It has made Google and Facebook the world’s largest advertising agencies. Contemporary surveillance is at the same time directed at the mass and targeted. Social media, big data, algorithms and targeted ads work together for enabling networked surveillance and data commodification. In the case of Cambridge Analytica and GSR, according to the Observer personal data of more than 50 million users, predominantly US-Americans, were collected in a political mass surveillance operation and combined with electoral roll data. Given the US’s liberal data protection policies, it cannot be ruled out that also a combination with credit card data and other data may have taken place. This political mass surveillance was conducted through fake personality tests directed at individuals. In the end, highly targeted political ads were presented to individuals. Big data’s commodification and its use for manipulating democracy worked together.

US data protection legislation is particularly lax and dominated by corporate self-regulation. More and more details about fake online news, fake attention generated by bots and algorithms, manipulative political ads show that the idea that corporations may collect as much data about citizens, consumers, workers and users as they please and do with it whatever they want, is mistaken. And corporations will not voluntarily stop. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will come into full force on May 25, 2018. It introduces fines of up to 20,000,000 Euros and 4 percent of a company’s total annual turnover for data protection infringements. Political history will show if the UK will after Brexit more follow the EU’s or the USA’s approach. It is clear that only measures such as high fines and the breakup of companies that illegally sell or illegally use personal data for commercial operations have a chance of helping to overcome surveillance society and fake news society.

Most governments are soft on undertaking legal steps against fake online politics. British Parliament could pioneer a different approach by extending the UK’s advertising ban from broadcasting to targeted political ads online and on social media. It is clear that Facebook, Google and the advertising industry will fight tooth and nail against putting any legal limits on online advertising. In 2017, Google/Alphabet’s profits achieved predominantly from targeted online advertising amounted to US$12.7 billion and Facebook’s US$16.4 billion.

The last time a non-MP was called to the bar of the House of Commons and publicly admonished by the Speaker was in 1957: On January 24, the Sunday Express’ editor-in-chief John Junor had to appear before the Speaker of the House of Commons William Morrison, who reprimanded him for contempt of the UK Parliament. He had published an article about petrol allocation that had questioned the integrity of MPs. Junor expressed his “sincere and unreserved apologies”. More recently, the two News of the World executives Colin Myler and Tom Crone were spared being summoned to Parliament after they had misled the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee about phone hacking. If indeed a Select Committee was lied to in the context of the dangers that the culture of fake online politics poses to democracy, should the Speaker of the House of Commons revive this practice in the context of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook?

Several important questions arise: What role did Cambridge Analytica’s former vice president Steve Bannon play? How much has Trump known about all of these activities? Did Trump reward Bannon with a high-level post for activities threatening democracy?

Whereas Nixon’s impeachment stood in the context of audiotapes and wiretapped phones, today’s political scandals take place in an age of data surveillance and digital profiling. Will the Cambridge Analytica-scandal become the “Smoking Gun” of Trump’s Watergate?


Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

Christian Fuchs


Christian Fuchs is Professor at, and the Director of, the Communication and Media Research Institute. He is also Director of the Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies.

His fields of expertise are critical digital & social media studies, Internet & society, political economy of media and communication, information society theory, social theory and critical theory.


20 March 2018
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