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Campaigns sidestep Cambridge Analytica crackdown with new methods

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Tech Xplore, October 2020

“Your early vote has not been recorded,” one text message said, with a link for more information. Other messages tell voters they are not registered, or offer unverified information about a political opponent. Fraudulent messages like these are drawing attention as political campaigns ramp up data collection and voter targeting using their own technology to circumvent restrictions imposed by social media platforms following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook barred apps which scraped data on users and their contacts after revelations about the now-defunct British consulting group. But in response, President Donald Trump’s campaign and some activist groups are using their own methods.

“What we are seeing is almost more potent than in 2016,” said Samuel Woolley, a University of Texas professor who leads propaganda research at the school’s Center for Media Engagement. Woolley’s team, which examined messages such as the above-referenced ones, found that the Trump mobile app, and to a lesser extent those of Democrat Joe Biden and other political activist groups, scoop up data to create profiles to craft personalized, targeted messages by SMS, email or social media.

Some apps collect data not only on the user, but his or her contacts, and track location and other activities such as shopping or church attendance. Campaigns can combine that with third-party information from data brokers or public records to finetune messages to specific individuals or groups.

“In 2016 there was more reliance on Facebook, and other social platforms, but now the campaigns have taken the collection of data into their own hands,” said Woolley, who called the Trump app a “surveillance tool.”

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