Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a privately held company that combines data mining 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 U.S. 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 New York City, Washington, D.C., and London.
In 2015 it became known as the data analysis company working initially for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. In 2016, after Cruz's campaign had faltered, 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 "married data gathering and artificial intelligence with psy-ops—psychological propaganda techniques developed by the US military to change enemy behaviour. In this case, the targets were US and UK citizens." CA's role and impact on those campaigns has been disputed and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries.
Background and methodsEdit
SCL Group calls itself a "global election management agency" 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 coworkers a profiling system using general online data, Facebook-likes, and smartphone data. He showed that with a limited number of "likes" people can be analyzed better than friends or relatives can do and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people.
When SCL Elections formed CA in 2013 it hired researchers from Cambridge University, hence the name. CA collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer behavior, 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 is the "Cruz Crew" mobile app that tracks physical movements and contacts and invades 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, 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 U.S. 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.
United States of AmericaEdit
2016 presidential electionEdit
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 $3m 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 rivaling 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.
In 2016, the company said that it had not used psychographics in the Trump presidential campaign.
2014 midterm electionsEdit
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 prioritized 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.
2016 Brexit referendumEdit
CA became involved in the 2016 Brexit referendum supporting "persuadable" voters to vote for leaving the European Union. Articles on The Guardian website, published in February and May 2017, explored in detail the influence of CA a both on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential campaign with Robert Mercer's backing of Trump being key. They also discuss the legality concerns of using the social data farmed.
Investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 US Presidential electionEdit
On May 18, 2017, Time Magazine reported that the US Congress is 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 Trump campaign digital operations chief, CA worked "side-by-side" with representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter on Trump's digital campaign activities.
On August 4, 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.
Accusations of exaggerationEdit
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.
The New York Times also reported that the Ted Cruz presidential campaign stopped using CA after its psychographic models had failed to identify likely Cruz supporters.
The extent to which the American presidential and Brexit votes were decided by the data company’s psy-ops was debated, what was beyond doubt was the potential for such technology in two elections 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.
While 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.
Convincing versus manipulationEdit
Concern raised about organizations such as this crossing the line from persuading subjects to adopt ideas by presenting convincing evidence and that of manipulating subjects, was raised by a social scientist who studies organizational behavior, Michal Kosinski, previously a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Cambridge and in 2017, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the business school of Stanford, when he stated that, "there's a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them."
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