THE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA SCANDAL (explained)
On March 16, 2018, the general public learned for the very first time about the elaborate scheme that stood behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Those newly discovered pieces of evidence demonstrate not only how his team played with the psychology of an entire population, in the context of a supposedly democratic process but, also, how conspiracy theories became weapons of mass manipulation.
A data mining and political strategy firm hired by Trump’s campaign, named Cambridge Analytica, used illegal methods to target individuals and gain an unfair advantage during the 2016 presidential campaign. To be more precise, they succeeded in reaching complete access to personal information of at least 50 million user Facebook profiles.
In the aftermath of the revelations, American Senators asked Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to testify before Congress and explain this gracious social media manipulation. The real issue was that Facebook made it easy for developers to get access to our data, our friend’s data, and then share it with everybody else. Moreover, they have never mentioned publicly that our data was improperly used at any point during the presidential campaign.
The problem started way back in 2007 when Facebook opened its platform for developers while also allowing outside apps to access all kinds of user data. For example, you may have noticed that whenever you are logging in to a new app you are given the possibility of signing in with your Facebook account.
At the time, Facebook did not just allow access to the person who used or joined the app, but, also, to their entire friends’ network in order to help advertisers create better marketing strategies. So, if you joined the app, they will not just see your FB profile but, also, all the Facebook profiles of all the people you are friends with. Through this practice, they were able to find easier ways to exploit your vulnerabilities and send you customized messages that can determine you to change your views on defining social matters. And you can only imagine how dangerous this kind of information can be in the hands of somebody who’s trying to manipulate his rode to the White House.
In 2013, a University employee, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, accessed the information of 50 million Facebook users, under the false claim of academic research, later giving away all the information to Cambridge Analytica. However, he maintains that everything he did was legal and that he had a close working relationship with Facebook, which has granted him special permission for his app called “through your digital life”. In response, Facebook denies that the data transfer was a breach while conducting its own research into the claims. However, considering the scale of the problem, this may be a job that will require decades of research and inquiries.
The public was only able to get a hold of those astronomic revelations through a 29-years-old whistleblower who had previously worked for Cambridge Analytica as its research director; a company he came to describe as “a full-service propaganda machine”.
He explains the philosophy that stood behind the “grossly unethical experiment” in the following words: “if you want to change politics, you have to change first the culture, because politics flows from culture and so, if you want to change the culture, you first have to understand the units of culture and this means you need understand the people”. In conclusion, you don’t target an individual as just a voter, but the psychological profile of each voter in a particular context. But for this new style of political campaigning, you need appropriate weapons, more exactly, “cultural weapons”.
He claims that in a period of two or three months, 50 to 60 million profiles were successfully collected, and we are talking about everything that could be found on a Facebook profile: status updates, likes and, in some cases, even private messages. The company spent millions of dollars harvesting tens of millions of Facebook profiles, and those profiles were used as the foundation for the firm’s algorithms. The goal was to establish exactly what drives a person, what motivates an individual to change. They needed to know exactly what kind of message you would be more receptive to, including the right phrasing, the right title, the right template, when you need to consume this specific ad, and how many times is it necessary for a message to be transmitted in order for an individual to change his views.
This huge ambition is linked to the main character of our story, an ex-computer engineer turned billionaire, called Robert Mercer, who is actually known in some circles as the man behind Donald Trump’s presidential win. The plan started to take shape as he began to express his conservative political views and wish to impose those views on the general public. He made massive donations through the Mercer Family Foundation to institutions such as The Heritage Foundation which is an anti-tax and economic regulation lobby institution, Media Research Group which is an institution fighting the media Left-wing Agenda, Government Accountability Institute which tracks government corruption and publishes books critical to Hillary Clinton, and the Hartford institute which defends climate change skeptics.
At this point in time, he knew he needed support from the media and the right political candidate to turn his aspirations and political views into reality. Back then, his ideas were a little too extreme for the mainstream media, so he decided to buy an online media outlet for 10 million dollars, called Breitbart News, and let his right-hand man, Steve Bannon, a man who deeply shares his political views, in charge.
In 2015, he began his plans by supporting Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, but after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in several Republican primaries, Mercer decided to embark on the presidential political journey alongside the famous businessman and TV personality, Donald Trump. He took over his whole campaign, put Steve Bannon in charge, and created a pro-Trump action committee called “Make America №1”.
In addition, they decided to reach a private British behavioral research and strategic communication company, called SCL Group, for political counseling. The company had 4 branches: one for the military, another for the commercial segment, an analytical branch, and, of course, an election branch. But mainly because American laws prohibit external influences during the domestic democratic process, the company created a new subsidiary, called Cambridge Analytica in order to appear as an English company newly arrived in the US. “SCL elections”, which was part of the SCL Group, became a minority shareholder at Cambridge Analytica, while the majority shareholder was still Robert Mercer who founded the company with millions of dollars and once again chose Steve Bannon to be the head of it. They created the appearance of an independent entity estranged from SCL Group, but in reality, the operations were fully conducted by the SCL Elections branch.
To explain the company services, we only have to take a look at their website for their official explanation. They claim to combine geographic and demographic information with up to 5000 data points of national, political, consumer, and lifestyle behavior for every voter in the US, then they add a unique extra-layer of data about personality, decision making, and motivation. This creates an unparalleled rich and detailed view of voters in the issues they care about, so, you know exactly who to target and with exactly what type of massage. This is called “behavioral microtargeting”. Their team of data scientists, psychologists, and campaign experts worked together to determine which individual votes they need to win to secure the victory.
Since its arrival on US soil, the firm has started to compile millions of pieces of data on American voters without their knowledge or consent. They bought data from credit card companies, banks, and healthcare providers, as well as from Web giants such as Facebook, Google, or Twitter. These sorts of practices are undoubtedly immoral. However, none of these companies want to address the risks behind the massive data harvesting during a democratic presidential election.
In the end, Cambridge Analytica pilled up to 5000 pieces of information for each one of the American voters. Then the company compared the data with the results from various psychological tests run on the public on unharmful matters. This technique already existed and is the consequence of psychometric studies. So, scientists discovered that instead of using direct questions, you can use digital footprints to establish certain psychological patterns in different situations. They are called OCEAN tests and they measure personality based on 5 criteria:
These tests can be completed online and have titles such as “What superhero are you?” or “Which Harry Potter character are you?”, and I am sure at some point you have completed a test like this and probably enjoyed it without even knowing that your responses helped to create an elaborate psychological profile for some research company.
Some digital data experts say they can even transform your Facebook likes into an accurate prediction of your political views, personality, IQ, happiness, sexual orientation, and even if your parents are divorced. This was a game-changer. The world had never ever seen anything like this. Imagine that with so little as 10 likes, the algorithm knows you better than your colleagues, with 100 likes, the algorithm knows your better than your family, and with 230 likes, the algorithm knows you better than your love partner.
Therefore, thanks to Cambridge Analytica’s researches to predict human behavior, Trump’s campaign gathered the necessary “cultural weapons” for creating a successful and highly effective political targeted strategy based on the particularities of the US electorate system.
In the USA, the president is not elected directly by the people, but by the Electoral College appointed in each of the 50 states and not all states have the same number of electors which makes some states more important than others. Trump’s advisers suspected that they will not win the national vote (which later proved to be true), so they decided to concentrate their work on some key states. And everyone was surprised when Donald Trump turned over to 3 states that are considered deeply democratic: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Using the data they had on the electorate, they were able to define 32 types of personalities throughout the countries. Through this, the firm was able to identify the profile of the worried or neurotic person and therefore predisposed to Donald Trump’s messages in exactly those 3 primarily democratic countries (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania).
How exactly they reached out to those people? Well, they used a little known Facebook feature named “dark posts” which are basically individualized messages visible only for the individual to whom they are intended. This means that candidates can target individuals on Facebook with negative messages against their political opponents without the journalists being aware of it as those messages disappear quickly.
But how does it work exactly? Let’s think about an ordinary individual that is targeted and analyzed with the firm’s algorithms. Thanks to Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s campaign knows he is in favor of carrying firearms, so they will create a customized massage just for him. For example, “did you know that Hillary Clinton wants to take away your gun?” and he will receive the message with a photo of Hillary Clinton next to a gun and a big scary title at a specific time according to his specific habits and digital footprints. Only he will see this targeted add which will disappear a few hours later. You have no idea who saw what and who’s being told what, the only one that knows it is the individual specifically targeted, and interestingly enough, technically Facebook knows it, too. Those dark posts are saved on the Facebook server, but they are not going to share this data.
It’s true that Donald Trump is not the first presidential candidate to use a digital political strategy. For example, Obama’s team created a smartphone app during the 2012 elections, called Obama for America, but the differences are actually HUGE. They told the voters exactly what they were doing and acted with transparency, while Cambridge Analytica obtained the data in total violation of the Facebook rules and did not inform the public about the implications of their psychometric methods, and that their personal data will eventually be used for specific political advertisement targeting.
As a matter of fact, Cambridge Analytica’s role in several campaigns is right now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, primarily in the US, but also in the UK for their implication in the Leave EU-campaign for the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership. On 1 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, filed for insolvency proceedings and closed operations.
There is no doubt, Donald Trump election was not a fair game. Never has a candidate relied so much on fake news and secret voter targeting.