Based on this answer, and the fact that the discussion was said to get off topic and I wanted to know more, I thought about asking this question to find an answer.

It seems to me that both campaigns used data that was obtained without the consent of the vast majority of people:

From Politifact

The Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica both gained access to huge amounts of information about Facebook users and their friends, and in neither case did the friends of app users consent.

And then later:

Whereas the data gathering and the uses were very different, the data each campaign gained access to was similar.

So my question is: did both sides basically do the same thing (using data without the users' consent), but Facebook only got "called out" when the Cambridge Analytica founder blew the whistle?

I would like to make one thing clear as far as I understand it. Both camps started by getting user data from users who willingly used their app. Then both campaigns used the data from those users to get the data from all the users in their contact/friend list as well (without consent from those friends), bloating the original amount of data x100.

Some information from this article:

the Obama camp used a common Facebook developer API–the same one used to access the data for Cambridge Analytica–to create a Facebook app that could capture the personal data not only of the app user, but also of all that person’s friends.

and this

The Obama campaign’s director of integration and media analytics Carol Davidsen said on Twitter that Facebook was surprised to learn how much user data could be pulled out through its graph API. “We were actually able to download the entire social network of the U.S.

It feels to me that the Obama campaign did not do anything wrong as such - Facebook is to blame for not protecting the data. But (like my question), if both sides did the same thing, then one could also not say that CA did much wrong.

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    if both sides did the same thing, then one could also not say that CA did much wrong. Or they both did wrong? Just cause Obama's campaign did something, doesn't make it right. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 17:32
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    For the sake of accuracy: the whistleblower was not the founder of Cambridge Analytica.
    – terdon
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 21:21
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    Also for the sake of accuracy, now I also know that the Trump campaign never actually used the data from CA. They went with the RNC data instead that proofed to be more reliable. So all this hype and saying "it is more proof of Trump rigging the election" when he didn't even use the data.
    – Alfa Bravo
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 12:35
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    Many years ago I got a facebook developer's account for an app I was thinking of making, and got access to their graph API. Never panned out, but I was shocked how much data I could download... all my users, and all the friends of my users. Facebook's terms of use said, basically, 'be sure to erase it all if the user unfollows you, don't use it for any nefarious purposes,' but I would be surprised if there aren't thousands of companies who are keeping that sort of data. It just happened to explode on Cambridge Analytica, probably just because of their Trump connection. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 20:22
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    @AlfaBravo They claim they never used the data. Their claims have proven....less than reliable... in the past though.
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 10:22

3 Answers 3


did both sides basically do the same thing (using data without the users consent)

No, according to your link

  • The people signing up for ["Obama for America"] knew the data they were handing over would be used to support a political campaign.

  • The people filling in the Cambridge University personality quiz were not informed that their data would be used to support a political campaign.

The way the data was used was different

  • The "Obama for America" app encouraged its users to send campaign messages to their friends
  • The Trump campaign worked with Cambridge Analytica (CA) with the intention† to use this data to directly send targeted adverts to friends of users of the personality tests without involving those users.

What is true is that, in both cases, friends of users were not explicitly asked by Facebook or by anyone else for consent for their data to be used in this way. Facebook seems to have taken the view that if you choose to share data with a friend, that friend is free to share that data further. Facebook's history suggests that their meat-based products are often unaware of or oblivious to the sausage-factory's sales to their real customers.

† The Trump campaign are reported as saying the data obtained by CA (in contravention of Facebook policies‡) was not actually used because the RNC had some better data they could use for the purpose.

‡ Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, says the data was passed to CA in contravention of Facebook's policies at that time.

I would like to make one thing clear as far as I understand it. Both camps started by getting user data from users who willingly used [their respective] app.

That is not the case. There was no "Trump for America" app. Facebook users did not willingly use a Trump campaign app. They thought they were using a Cambridge university personality test.

Obama 2012

NPR reports Betsy Hoover, the online organizing director for Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign as saying:

the app that everyone's referring to in this moment was an app called Targeted Sharing. It was an app that we created on Facebook that fully followed Facebook's terms of service. And any individual could decide to use the app. When they clicked on the app, a screen would pop up that would say what data they're authorizing the app was giving us access to and exactly how we were going to use that data. And so at that time, it was totally legitimate on Facebook to say you're giving us access to your social network. You're giving us access to your friends on Facebook.

we matched the data of your friends to that model and then reflected it back to the person who had authorized the app and said, if you want to reach out to your friends about this election on Facebook, here are the ones that you should reach out to first. And that was it...

Users of the "Obama for America" app provided access to information about their friends explicitly in order to find out which ones would be receptive to messages from the user regarding the political campaign those users were supporting.

Trump 2016

USA Today reports Patrick Ruffini, a co-founder Echelon Insights, a Republican-leaning digital analytics and research firm, as saying:

had Cambridge Analytica just put out the app themselves, they would have been playing by the rules

Obama's team put out the app themselves, Trump's did not. A republican says Trump's team were not "playing by the rules".


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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 9:00

According to Facebook, Cambridge Analytica obtained the data from a third party, a Cambridge university researcher, which was in violation of Facebook policy. The Obama campaign got their data openly, under their own name. Whether this is a significant difference from a privacy perspective is perhaps subjective, but there are certainly ethical implications.

Addendum: it should perhaps be emphasized that Cambridge Analytica denies that the data in question was used in the Trump campaign.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 9:03

According to information available on the net the differences were:

  1. the data used by Cambridge Analytica was improperly shared with them by another company that did the actual scraping. CA then used, allegedly, that data in the primaries to create targeted ads. What actual data was used we don't know. Who was actually targeted, we also don't know for sure. Also, that data wasn't used during election.
  2. Obama2012 app users knew their data was to be used in political campaign and that they compromised their friends' personal data. Obama2012 then proceeded to scrape - unconsented - data on 190 million users and deliver political ad disguised as message from friend during election.

That would mean that no, both issues aren't the same.

The problem is that "Cambridge Analytica Scandal" is very much a media fabrication. No doubt CA execs did a lot of damage to themselves, but any proof of legal transgressions by them has yet to surface. It is also designed to "cover" much worse transgressions by "much more palatable ideologically" parties. Very similar in level but much worse in reach (yes, Obama2012).

Or, to put it in words of someone better with them:

But keep in mind that it wasn't the Trump campaign that solicited the collection of the data. And, as we said, it didn't use the data in the general election campaign.

Obama, in contrast, was collecting live data on active users right up until Election Day, and at a scale that dwarfed anything the Trump campaign could access.

More important, the vast majority of people involved in these data-mining operations had no idea they were participating. And in the case of Obama, they had no way of knowing that the Obama campaign material cluttering their feed wasn't really just political urgings from their friends.

There is one other big difference: how these revelations were received by pundits and the press. In 2012, Obama was wildly celebrated in news stories for his mastery of Big Data, and his genius at mining it to get out the vote.

We were told then about how the campaign "won the race for voter data," and how it "connected with young voters." His data analytics gurus were treated as heroes.

This is not to say that Facebook doesn't deserve criticism. Clearly, its data-protection policies have been slipshod.

But the recent fury exposes a massive double standard on the part of those now raising hell.

When Obama was exploiting Facebook users to help win re-election, it was an act of political genius. When Trump attempted something similar, with unclear results, it's a travesty of democracy and further evidence that somehow he stole the election.

Reading material:




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    Do you have a source for the "Obama2012 [...] deliver political ad disguised as message from friend" part? Because as far as I understood it, the users were sending messages to their friends, based on recommendations from the app. These are two very different things, so if indeed the first happened, that would change things imho. Regarding the "unconsented": You mean without consent from the friends, right? Because afaik, the original user was informed that this data would be scraped for this specific purpose, and they consented to that.
    – tim
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 14:09
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    Adding on to @tim's comment, the Obama2012 app got consent from the app user for each action it performed. It provided suggested messages, and easy ways to share some content (eg during the live stream of the Democratic National Convention, if the user authorized the app while viewing the stream, they were given the option to post that they were watching the stream). Essentially, it was a tool to assist Obama supporters in spreading campaign messages.
    – LazyGadfly
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 14:55
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    "the data used by Cambridge Analytica was improperly shared with them" seems to directly contradict with "any proof of wrongdoing by them has yet to surface".
    – LazyGadfly
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 14:58
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    I think 'encouraging users to send ads to their friends' is quite different from 'the app sending ads disguised as messages'.
    – npostavs
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 21:59
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    "Obama campaign knew who to send it to. That's the point." - it's a good point. You should change "Obama2012 then proceeded to [...] deliver political ad" into "Obama2012 then proceeded to [...] craft targeted political ads for app users to send to their friends" so that the point won't be obscured. The difference between user tapping and app sending automonously is like the difference between a human operated drone strike, and Skynet sending the Terminator (slight hyperbole). Hence you should avoid sensationalism and be clear that you're not claiming the latter.
    – npostavs
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 12:42

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