A Facebook executive says that Cambridge Analytica, the data firm at the center of the 2016 presidential election, was selling “snake oil” and was not as powerful as has been portrayed, according to an internal memo from the social network that was leaked to The New York Times.
On Tuesday, The Times published a letter from Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook VP who headed up the ads platform in 2016. Bosworth posted the note to Facebook’s internal company message board last month. In the letter, he outlines his thoughts on how the company responded to 2016, when Facebook was blamed for allowing a flood of misinformation that helped in the election of President Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica emerged as one of the biggest villains of 2016, as it was accused of harvesting data on 87 million Facebook users and applying their personal information to sophisticated ad targeting, potentially affecting the outcome of the vote.
“Their claim to fame was psychographic targeting,” Bosworth says in the memo. “This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and, in many cases, performed worse).”
Of course, that opens the question as to why Facebook let Cambridge Analytica into its marketing partner program in the first place. “I personally regret letting them stay on the [Facebook Marketing Partner] program for that reason alone,” Bosworth says. “However, at the time we thought they were just another company trying to find an angle to promote themselves and assumed poor performance would eventually lose them their clients. We had no idea they were shopping an old Facebook dataset that they were supposed to have deleted (and certified to us in writing that they had).”
Last year, Facebook paid a record $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission.
Bosworth’s memo was meant to be a private internal company missive, according to The Times. Facebook was not immediately available for comment.
The note addresses a number of other subjects, including Bosworth’s personal feelings about Trump. The executive identifies as a “committed liberal,” but said Facebook should remain a neutral party in the political landscape. “As a committed liberal, I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result,” Bosworth wrote, referring to the impulse to use Facebook to thwart a Trump victory.
Bosworth even used an example from “Lord of the Rings” to illustrate his point. In the book and movie, a character refuses a powerful ring because it would corrupt her. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear,” Bosworth wrote.
Bosworth’s anti-Trump sentiment stands in sharp contrast to how CEO Mark Zuckerberg has handled the president. Just this week, Trump touted having dinner with Zuckerberg, and claimed the CEO told him he was the No. 1 Facebook user. Late last year, Zuckerberg acknowledged having dinner with Trump among other high-profile conservatives. Zuckerberg has been making an effort to reach out to conservatives and liberal power-brokers as the company navigates U.S. politics.
Facebook is at the center of much the debate around how social media influences elections, politics and media. The company has been criticized for its fact-checking policies and allowing campaigns to create misleading ads. Meanwhile, rival Twitter came out last year with a plan to ban most political ads to avoid the issue altogether.
In his note, Bosworth downplayed the impact of misinformation and foreign interference in helping to elect Trump. “So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks,” Bosworth says. “He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”
Bosworth posted the note to his Facebook page after The Times published it. "Overall I hoped this post would encourage my coworkers to continue to accept criticism with grace as we accept the responsibility we have overseeing our platform," Bosworth said. "I end with a call to discussion for what other areas we feel we are falling short that should be a focus in 2020."