When it comes to presidential campaigns, usually the potential impact on businesses will be attitudes toward trade, taxes, labor laws, innovation, government spending, and the like. But according to a report in the Guardian, this year isn't like others.

That's because the Ted Cruz campaign has allegedly contracted out the creation of "detailed psychological profiles about the US electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting US Facebook users built with an online survey." If true, that would not only be a questionable use of research methods, but could create a whole new wave of privacy concerns among consumers, which could directly and indirectly harm the efforts that marketers make to reach people and build relationships.

As part of an aggressive new voter-targeting operation, Cambridge Analytica - financially supported by reclusive hedge fund magnate and leading Republican donor Robert Mercer - is now using so-called "psychographic profiles" of US citizens in order to help win Cruz votes, despite earlier concerns and red flags from potential survey-takers.

Mercer is Cruz's main donation squeeze and share's the senator's taste for uncontrolled markets and a disbelief in climate change.

That's politics and, in this case, is neither here nor there. The problem is that, according to documents the Guardian says is has uncovered, academics have "hoovered up personal data by accessing a vast set of US Facebook profiles, in order to build sophisticated models of users' personalities without their knowledge." It would be a breach of ethics -- researchers aren't supposed to use personal data in studies without the acquiescence of the subjects -- and it sure as get out could create an enormous problem with questions of privacy.

The consultancy involved, Cambridge Analytica, describes itself as follows:

At Cambridge Analytica we use data modeling and psychographic profiling to grow audiences, identify key influencers, and connect with people in ways that move them to action. Our unique data sets and unparalleled modeling techniques help organizations across America build better relationships with their target audience across all media platforms.

Cambridge Analytica allegedly paid people at Cambridge University to do some aspect of data gathering and analysis. The entire process isn't clear, but apparently it involved getting people to take surveys, a common enough activity on Facebook. As part of this, though, the users effectively gave the researchers permission to access their accounts and download such data as name, age, location, and collected "likes."

If this is true, it's the type of stunt that is a nightmare for marketers of all stripes. It could cause consumers to react badly, potentially spark calls for congressional investigation, and, last but not least, make Facebook management angry and wary of cooperating with companies.

Data is their lifeblood. Facebook can't afford yet another round of privacy roulette, and marketers don't want ordinary activities to be view with suspicion.

Published on: Dec 11, 2015
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