Cambridge Analytica LLC (CA) is a privately held company that combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company SCL Group to participate in American politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races. The company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes. The firm maintains offices in London, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
|Data mining, data analysis|
|Founded||31 December 2013|
|Headquarters||New York City|
|Alexander Nix (CEO)
Robert Mercer (investor)
Steve Bannon (vice president, former)
|Parent||SCL Group Limited|
In 2015, it became known as the data analysis company working initially for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. In 2016 CA worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and on the Leave.EU-campaign for the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union. CA's role in those campaigns has been controversial and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries. Political scientists dispute CA's claims about the effectiveness of its methods of targeting voters.
On 17 March 2018, The New York Times and The Observer reported on Cambridge Analytica's use of personal information acquired from Facebook, without users' permission, by an external researcher who claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes. In response, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform. The Guardian further reported that Facebook had known about this security breach for two years but had done nothing to protect its users.
A series of undercover investigative videos released in March 2018 showed Cambridge Analytica's Chief Executive Officer, Alexander Nix, boasting about using prostitutes, bribery sting operations, and honey traps to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research. Nix also claimed that the company "ran all of (Donald Trump's) digital campaign", including possible illegal activities. The Information Commissioner of the UK has asked for a warrant to search the company's servers.
Background and methods
Nigel Oakes, the founder of SCL Group acted as an image consultant for the former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000. SCL secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Techniques reportedly used include using front companies and sub-contractors to bay bribes and employ sex workers.
Publicly, SCL Group calls itself a "global election management agency", while Politico reported it was known for involvement "in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting". SCL's involvement in the political world has been primarily in the developing world where it has been used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. Slate writer Sharon Weinberger compared one of SCL's hypothetical test scenarios to fomenting a coup.
According to the Swiss Das Magazin the methods of data analysis of CA are to a large degree based on the academic work of Michal Kosinski. In 2008, Kosinski had joined the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University where he then developed with his colleagues a profiling system using general online data, Facebook-likes, and smartphone data. He showed that with a limited number of "likes" people can be analysed better than friends or relatives can do and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people.
Cambridge Analytica was founded by conservatives Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. A minimum of 15 million dollars has been invested into the company by Mercer, according to The New York Times. Bannon's stake in the company was estimated at 1 to 5 million dollars, but he divested his holdings in April 2017 as required by his role as White House Chief Strategist.
CA collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity, and other public and private sources. According to The Guardian, CA is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users' permission or knowledge. Another source of information was the "Cruz Crew" mobile app that tracked physical movements and contacts and according to the Associates Press, invaded personal data more than any other app of presidential candidates.
"Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual ... So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people."— Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016.
The company claims to use "data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques" providing "psychographic analysis" for a "deeper knowledge of the target audience". The company uses the OCEAN scale of personality traits. Using what it calls "behavioral microtargeting" the company indicates that it can predict "needs" of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing "a better and more actionable view of their key audiences." According to Sasha Issenberg, CA indicates that it can tell things about an individual he might not even know about himself.
CA derives much of its personality data on online surveys which it conducts on an ongoing basis. For each political client, the firm narrows voter segments from 32 different personality styles it attributes to every adult in the United States. The personality data informs the tone of the language used in ad messages or voter contact scripts, while additional data is used to determine voters' stances on particular issues.
The data gets updated with monthly surveys, asking about political preferences and how people get the information they use to make decisions. It also covers consumer topics about different brands and preferred products, building up an image of how someone shops as much as how they vote.
Argentina, the Czech Republic, Kenya, India, Nigeria
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Cambridge Analytica's executives stated the company has targeted more than 200 elections around the world, including in Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India, and Argentina.
CA ran campaigns in secret during Kenya's 2013 and 2017 polls. In September 2012, Dan Mureşan, an employee of CA working for Uhuru Kenyatta was found dead in his hotel room in Kenya. The company claimed on its website to have conducted a survey of 47,000 Kenyans during the 2013 elections in order to understand "key national and local political issues, levels of trust in key politicians, voting behaviours/intentions, and preferred information channels". After the revelations in March 2018, where CA staff boasted of their power in Kenya, opposition figures called for an investigation, while a member of Kenyatta's party stated CA "were basically branding and all that but not directly".
2014 midterm elections
The company worked with the John Bolton Super PAC on a major digital and TV campaign focused on senate races in Arkansas, North Carolina and New Hampshire, and helped turnout voters for the Republican candidates in those states. Two of the Republican candidates backed by the Bolton SuperPAC, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Tom Cotton in Arkansas, won their Senate bids, while Scott Brown lost in New Hampshire. The PAC ran 15 different spots each in North Carolina and Arkansas and 17 in New Hampshire—mostly online with some targeted directly to households using Dish and DirecTV. All were intended to push Mr. Bolton's national security agenda.
CA also supported Thom Tillis's successful campaign to oust Kay Hagan as the senator for North Carolina. The firm was credited for its role in identifying a sizeable cluster of North Carolinians who prioritised foreign affairs—which encouraged Tillis to shift the conversation from state-level debates over education policy to charges that incumbent Kay Hagan had failed to take ISIS's rise seriously. Tillis's campaign and the North Carolina Republican Party paid Cambridge Analytica $345,000 for these services.
2016 presidential election
CA's involvement in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries became known in July 2015. As of December 2015, CA claimed to have collected up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans. At that time Robert Mercer was a major supporter of Ted Cruz. The Mercer family funded CA directly and indirectly through several super-PACs as well as through payments via Cruz's campaign.
Ted Cruz became an early major client of CA in the 2016 presidential campaign. Just prior to the Iowa caucuses, the Cruz campaign had spent $3 million for CA's services, with additional money coming from allied Super-PACs. After Cruz's win at the Iowa caucus CA was credited with having been able to identify and motivate potential voters. Ultimately the Cruz campaign spent $5.8 million on work by CA.
Ben Carson was a second client of CA; his campaign had paid $220,000 for "data management" and "web service" as reported in October 2015. Marco Rubio's campaign was supported by Optimus Consulting. Meanwhile, the third competitor, Governor John Kasich, was supported by rivalling firm Applecart.
After Cruz dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016, Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah started to support Trump. In August, it became known that CA followed their allegiance and worked for Trump's presidential campaign. Trump's campaign also worked with digital firm Giles Parscale. In September, the Trump campaign spent $5 million to purchase television advertising. The Trump campaign spent less than $1 million in data work.[not in citation given]
In 2016, the company said that it had not used psychographics in the Trump presidential campaign.
2016 Brexit referendum
CA became involved in the 2016 Brexit referendum supporting "persuadable" voters to vote for leaving the European Union. Articles by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer and Guardian newspapers, respectively published in February and May 2017, speculated in detail that CA had influenced both the Brexit/Vote Leave option in the UK's 2016 EU membership referendum and Trump's 2016 US presidential campaign with Robert Mercer's backing of Donald Trump being key. They also discuss the legality of using the social data farmed. CA is pursuing legal action over the claims made in Cadwalladr's articles.
No campaign contributions, in cash or in kind, by Cambridge Analytica were reported to the UK electoral authorities. Both CA and Leave.eu refused to comment on any donation of services.
Investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election
On 18 May 2017, Time reported that the US Congress was investigating CA in connection with Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The report alleges that CA may have coordinated the spread of Russian propaganda using its microtargetting capabilities. According to the Trump campaign's digital operations chief, CA worked "side-by-side" with representatives from Facebook, Alphabet Inc. and Twitter on Trump's digital campaign activities.
On 4 August 2017, Michael Flynn, who is under investigation by US counterintelligence for his contacts with Russian officials, amended a public financial filing to reflect that he had served in an advisory role in an agreement with CA during the 2016 Trump campaign.
On 25 October 2017, Julian Assange said that on Twitter that he had been approached by Cambridge Analytica, but said he had rejected its proposal. Assange's tweet followed a story in The Daily Beast alleging that Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix had proposed a collaboration with Wikileaks to find the 33,000 emails that had been deleted from Clinton's private server. CNN said it had been told by several unnamed sources that Nix intended to turn the Clinton email archive released to the public by the State Department into a searchable database for the campaign or a pro-Trump political action committee.
On 14 December 2017, it was revealed that Robert Mueller had requested during the fall of 2017 that Cambridge Analytica turn over the emails of any of its employees who worked on the Trump campaign, as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
In 2018, following disclosures that the company had inappropriately acquired the personal information of over 50 million Facebook users while working on Trump's presidential campaign, the Times of Israel reported that the company had used Israeli "intelligence gathering" as part of their efforts to influence the election results in Trump's favor.
Assessment of impact
Political scientists[who?] have expressed strong skepticism of the claims made by Cambridge Analytica about the effectiveness of its microtargeting of voters (microtargeting refers to the process of "analyzing data to predict the behavior, interests, and opinions held by specific groups of people and then serving them the messages they're most likely to respond to"). Political scientists[who?] note that access to digital data is not going to provide significantly more information than from public voter databases, and the digital data has limited value over time as the preferences of voters change. Political scientists also note that it is hard to infer political values from personality traits, which means that it is easy to mistarget the messages that are sent to voters with specific personality traits. Research discussed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College showed that it is extremely hard to alter voters' preferences, because many likely voters are already committed partisans; as a result, it is easier to simply mobilize partisan voters. Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh, who has published on microtargeting in campaigns, has expressed strong skepticism about Cambridge Analytica's methods and their purported effectiveness, saying "Every claim about psychographics etc made by or about [Cambridge Analytica] is BS."
In 2017, CA claimed that it has psychological profiles of 220 million US citizens based on 5,000 separate data sets. In March 2017, The New York Times reported that CA had exaggerated its capabilities: "Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign." Trump aides have also disputed CA's role in the campaign, describing it as "modest" and noting that none of the company's efforts involved psychographics.
According to an aide and consultant for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, their campaign stopped using CA after its psychographic models failed to identify likely Cruz supporters. The Cruz campaign ceased access to all of Cambridge's data after the South Carolina Republican primary on 20 February 2016 when Cruz came in third after Trump and Rubio.
The extent to which the American presidential and Brexit elections were decided by the data company's psy-ops was debatable. What was beyond doubt was the potential impact of the technology in the two elections which were determined by wafer-thin swing votes. The presidential campaign won the electoral college by 80,000 votes in three states and the EU referendum was decided by two per cent of UK voters.
The use of personal data collected without knowledge or permission to establish sophisticated models of user's personalities raises ethical and privacy issues. CA operates out of the United States; its operations would be illegal in Europe with its stricter privacy laws. While Cruz is outspoken about protecting personal information from the government, his data base of CA has been described as "political-voter surveillance".
Regarding CA's use of Facebook users, a speaker for CA indicated that these users gave permission when signing up with the provider, while Facebook declared that "misleading people or misusing information" is in violation of Facebook's policies. In 2015, Facebook indicated that it was investigating the matter. In March 2018, Facebook announced that it had suspended the accounts of Strategic Communication Laboratories for failing to delete data on Facebook users that had been improperly collected.
While Alexander Nix suggests that data collection and microtargetting benefits the voters as they receive messages about issues they care about, digital rights protection groups are concerned that private information is collected, stored, and shared while individuals are "left in the dark about [it]" and have no control.
Significant backlash against the company came to light in March 2018, resulting in much controversy as well as a $37bn drop in the market cap of Facebook as of 20 March.
Channel 4 News investigation
Channel 4 News conducted a four-month investigation into Cambridge Analytica starting in November 2017. An undercover reporter posed as a potential customer for Cambridge Analytica, hoping to help Sri Lankan candidates get elected. Video footage from this operation was published on 19 March 2018. From the footage, Cambridge Analytica executives say they worked on over 200 elections across the world. Alexander Nix was recorded in this investigation, talking "unguardedly about the company's practices". Nix boasted about how his company used honey traps, bribery stings, and prostitutes, for opposition research. For example, Nix offered to discredit political opponents in Sri Lanka with suggestive videos using "beautiful Ukrainian girls" and offers of bribes, even if the opponents did not accept the offers.
In the third part of the series, Nix also boasted of how Cambrdige Analytica "ran all the digital campaign" for Trump and that this included potentially illegal activities. Nix stated they used communications that would be self destructive, leaving no incriminating evidence. After the news segment was broadcast, the board of Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix as chief executive officer. The company also released a statement that the allegations did not represent the ethics of the company, and an independent entity would investigate Nix's statements. Nix remains in place as CEO of SCL Elections.
The investigation also raised questions regarding campaign finance law. During the 2016 election, the company was employed both by Trump's campaign and Robert Mercer's Make America Number 1 Super PAC which supported Trump. While PACs are not limited in the amount of funds they can spend on behalf of a candidate, they are not allowed to coordinate strategy with the campaigns they are supporting. Nix's statements in the recorded video describe how the Trump campaign itself could "take the high road" and "stay clean", while the negative attacks were handled by the firm and the Super PAC, in a way which makes it "unattributable, untrackable". These statements potentially suggested unlawful coordination between Trump's campaign and the PAC, although Cambridge Analytica has denied this.
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