Right-wing media outlets have downplayed the news that Cambridge Analytica, President Donald Trump’s data firm from the 2016 presidential election, was banned by Facebook for harvesting personal information from at least 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.
A whistleblower named Christopher Wylie explained to the Observer on March 17 that Cambridge Analytica used personal Facebook information obtained in early 2014 to make a system that could profile individual voters. The Observer explained that the data was collected by an app from an academic named Aleksandr Kogan, who paid several hundred thousand Facebook users to take a personality test for academic purposes, which then collected information from their Facebook friends, “leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong.” According to a March 17 report in The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica then obtained the data from Kogan; this information helped Cambridge Analytica “develop techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.” (Founded by the Republican megadonor Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica also counted former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as an early investor and board member, and it was Bannon who reportedly introduced the services of the data firm to the Trump campaign.)
But Facebook told the Times this data collection and the subsequent transaction between Kogan and Cambridge Analytica “was a scam -- and a fraud,” since the information was allowed to be collected for academic purposes only. Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie from its system.
Right-wing media’s sparse coverage either blamed Facebook or claimed no improper activity
Alex Jones dismissed the Cambridge Analytica story as “a giant hoax” and claimed it was connected to the death of Stephen Hawking. In a sprawling March 18 rant, Alex Jones defended Cambridge Analytica, claiming that their actions were simply “what social networks are; that’s how they data mine, that’s how they harvest.” Jones also claimed that “there’s probably 20 companies in Austin bigger than Cambridge Analytics [sic] doing the same thing for Democrats, they’re the ones that dominate it all.” Jones added that the Times story was “just a ridiculous PR stunt with this new superhero character they’re launching,” referring to the whistleblower who first revealed the data collection, and “that [he] has pink hair so you know you’ve got to listen to him, and he’s gay, so you can’t question him.” Jones also connected the story to the death of physicist Stephen Hawking, saying that “Hawking dies as their PR guy and then one week later, we’ve got the new guy, and it’s like Jesus arrived.”
Fox & Friends ignored the story completely. A Media Matters search of SnapStream closed captioning transcripts of the March 19 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends showed that the president’s favorite television show failed to mention the legal troubles of a data firm that helped him win the presidency.
Breitbart News Daily also ignored the story. Media Matters searched Veritone for mentions on Breitbart News Daily of “Cambridge,” “breach,” “50 million,” or “Facebook,” and found no relevant mentions of the Cambridge Analytica story. Breitbart News Daily was formerly hosted by Breitbart News’ then-executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, who is also former chief strategist for the Trump campaign and White House, as well as a former Cambridge Analytica vice president.
Wash. Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington claimed the story simply scandalizes “what advertisers do all the time,” and is just another attempt to “taint” Trump’s victory as “illegitimate.” On a March 19 appearance on Fox News, Harrington also complained about a “double standard” because former President Barack Obama had “one of the co-founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes, working on his campaign” in 2008, which gave him “an advantage on social media.”
The Drudge Report suggested the story constituted a “data leak” at Facebook that could help to “sink” the company. Drudge also speculated that the data leak “violated [an] FTC privacy deal,” linking to a Washington Post article quoting a former Federal Trade Commission official speculating that Facebook may have violated a FTC consent decree by supplying information to Cambridge Analytica.
A Breitbart report uncritically repeated Cambridge Analytica’s questionable claim that they “deleted all data” they improperly received. Breitbart quoted a statement from Cambridge Analytica, which claimed “Cambridge Analytica deleted” all Facebook data that it improperly received. The Breitbart report did not mention that Facebook found reason to believe that potentially “not all data was deleted.”
Over the weekend, Fox’s America’s News HQ reported on Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook suspension. The day after the story broke, Fox News reported on Cambridge Analytica’s suspension from Facebook, citing reporting from the Guardian and New York Times that it “harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles.” The Fox report included Facebook’s statement that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted all of the data.
Rush Limbaugh downplayed the story as “nothing unique,” calling Cambridge Analytica’s tactics “the modern-day equivalent of high-tech grass-roots politics.” Rush Limbaugh dubiously claimed that the tactics used by Cambridge Analytica are part and parcel of modern political information gathering, saying, “The Democrats have perfected using the personal data stored by internet companies for I don’t know how long,” but he failed to mention that the information used by Cambridge Analytica was meant for academic purposes only.
Ben Shapiro claimed the Cambridge Analytica story is part of “a larger attempt to convince social media companies … to shut down conservative opinions.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro pointed to the Cambridge Analytica story to push the right-wing conspiracy theory that tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are targeting and silencing conservative voices. Shapiro wrote of the reports about Cambridge Analytica, “This entire scandal is designed to pressure Facebook into cracking down on supposed right-wing activity,” and he claimed that “this is part of a broader pattern” of Democrats encouraging social media platforms to silence conservatives. Shapiro’s argument fits into a right-wing media narrative alleging censorship on the part of social media platforms that take action to address fake news and hate speech.
Fox host Greg Gutfeld: “I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here.” In a segment discussing Cambridge Analytica, The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld said “I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here.” Fellow co-host Jesse Watters joined Gutfeld in defending Cambridge Analytica and claimed “I spoke to the Trump campaign today, and they said that they never used any of the data that Cambridge Analytica used from Facebook.”
GREG GUTFELD (CO-HOST): I'm not so sure about this story. I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here. I read The Guardian story. The guy who is at the center of this kind of seemed like a B.S.-er, and he was like -- he was kind of, like, making himself into the hero, and I am always skeptical of that.
JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): I spoke to the Trump campaign today, and they said that they never used any of the data that Cambridge Analytica used from Facebook. What they did was they hired five staff members from Cambridge, and they had to sign a deal to get the staffers to come to work with them in Texas, but they never used any of this so-called “psychographic modeling.” They used data and research from the RNC, and from their own internal data network. So, a lot of it is trying to paint the Trump campaign as if they, you know, they reached into Facebook and ripped out all of this in an unethical way. It's just not true, but like you said, it's more about Facebook and protecting their customers' information, and obviously they didn't do a great job about it because they didn't let people know that their data was being mined, and I think Facebook has to answer to that. [Fox News, The Five, 3/19/18]