In early 2013, Canadian data scientist Christopher Wylie pitched an idea to his boss, Steve Bannon, for a company that would change how political campaigns use data to change minds. The two men secured funding for their project from Republican billionaire donor Robert Mercer and, excited by their idea’s potential, set about founding and building a company called Cambridge Analytica. Wylie turned whistleblower and told this story to a British newspaper in March of 2018.
Like many things to do with the alt-right, the elevator pitch for Cambridge Analytica sounds harmless: the company would gather and analyze social media profile data to better target events and news stories to eligible voters in the US presidential election, in the British EU membership referendum, and in any other election a paying campaign wanted to win. Using Wylie’s innovative data mining and analysis techniques, the company would offer better targeting and stronger results for its campaigns.
But, like everything having to do with the alt-right, there was a lot more to it.
Preying on Fear in the West
Cambridge Analytica hit the ground running. Between June and August 2014, the company harvested data from around 50 million Facebook profiles using a methodology that involved pulling data from friends of people who took a personality test set up by a Russian academic. Per British newspaper The Guardian:
The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.
However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising.
Having access to such rich data allowed Cambridge Analytica to, as one of the firm’s managing directors put it in a video filmed undercover by a team from Britain’s Channel Four News program, “drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.” He added: “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion, it’s all about emotion.”
Once the company built profiles of voters using their Facebook data, they set to work on behalf of the Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns. They created and disseminated fake news stories designed to prey on people’s deepest fears and concerns. In videos secretly filmed by Channel Four, the company’s CEO Alexander Nix boasted about all of the shady tactics his firm could set loose on both the people it has profiled and the leaders they follow.
These tactics were summed up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as “information warfare.” In an indictment for several companies and people associated with Russian troll farms, the Special Counsel said that groups using unbranded memes, fake news stories, and videos, “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
How deeply their actions influenced the presidential election and Brexit referendum in 2016 is currently an open question – but it’s one that both America and the United Kingdom have a vested interest in asking.
Russian Influence, Western Consequence
There are multiple lines of evidence that connect Cambridge Analytica to Russian influence, elevating this from being a question of morals and privacy to being a question of national security. Additional revelations suggesting that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Global, had high-level contractor access to the British Ministry of Defence and the US State Department have raised the stakes even higher.
Within days of Wylie’s story being published in the British press, the British Parliament and parts of the U.S. Congress had called for representatives from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook to appear before them to answer questions.
Facebook has taken a pummelling from the developing news stories (including news that its employees shared office space with Cambridge Analytica in San Antonio during the Trump campaign), with its stock tumbling rapidly while its executives remain silent. For its part, Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO and continues to protest its innocence.
We Can Help Take Them Down
There’s no question that Cambridge Analytica and the companies that supported it in its work deserve to face transparent justice. The West needs to thoroughly investigate the extent of the company’s undue influence over critical, history-making elections held throughout 2016. With both of its senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee, California residents have outsized power to make sure this happens.
- Thank Senator Dianne Feinstein for calling for an official investigation into Cambridge Analytica.
- Encourage Senator Kamala Harris to do the same.
- Take control of your Facebook data and digital profile.
- If you decide to #deletefacebook, tell your friends about it.
- Learn how to spot fake news and stop its spread in your networks. Cambridge Analytica didn’t just oppose Hillary Clinton; it used micro-targeting to sow division between progressives, using disinformation to exacerbate the differences between Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ supporters. We’re powerful when we’re united, and Russia … and the GOP … knows that.
- Learn about Russian trolls, how they operate, and how to report them on the platform where you found them.
Image courtesy of rawpixel via Pixabay.