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2017-2018 Issue II Cover Story Editors' Picks

Does Data Threaten Democracy? Cambridge Analytica’s Influence on Your Vote

There is no way this company can be legal,” said David Carroll, a professor at the Parsons School of Design, in an interview with The Politic. Carroll is currently suing Cambridge Analytica, the mysterious data analytics firm that helped elect President Donald Trump.

Shrouded in changing stories, accusations of military connections, and the mystery of a hedge fund billionaire’s money, Cambridge Analytica has emerged as a leviathan in the wake of Trump’s shock victory. Carroll is one of many critics who are suspicious of the firm. But the company itself maintains that its unique data collection and deployment methods are entirely legal and represent a natural progression of the advertising industry.

Cambridge Analytica, founded in 2014, creates targeted advertisements from the data it collects. The company has three divisions: Commercial, Political, and Society. The first two divisions are publicly listed on the company’s website, but no information exists about the third. The Politic only learned of it thanks to an interview for this article with a former employee.

The firm uses a controversial tool called psychographics, which measures personality. Cambridge Analytica claims that it has built in-depth psychological profiles of 230 million American voters, using 5,000 data points on each. This data includes the voter’s preferences on social media, news sources, and purchase history of products like cars. These data points are then used to create an OCEAN five-factor personality model; it measures Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

In a presentation at the 2016 Concordia Summit, CEO Alexander Nix explained that Cambridge Analytica’s use of psychographics is based on the belief that voters’ choice are influenced in part by personality, not just demographics and geography as other data analytics companies are inclined to think.

The personality models, as well as people’s demographic and geographic information, are used “to nuance…messaging to resonate more effectively with key audience groups,” Nix continued.

This strategy is called microtargeting. When put into practice, microtargeting ensures that a highly neurotic and conscientious voter is shown a fear-based commercial of a burglar breaking into his or her home instead of a legal defense of the Second Amendment, or that an anxious voter is shown a message emphasizing the dangers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Critics of microtargeting see Cambridge Analytica’s actions as intrusive.

People do not understand how their entire lives are being modelled,” Carroll said.

In an interview with The Politic, Swiss journalist Hannes Grassegger said that he believes  Cambridge Analytica is forging a whole new discipline of advertising.

“What really starts now is personalizing information,” said Grassegger. As a result, he explained, the world will start to morph into a “virtual reality [where] your information environment is adapting to you.”

He gave a not-too-futuristic analogy of a room in which the lighting is changed according to the mood of the person who walks in. “What if five people come into the room?” he asked. “Whose mood will be chosen for the lighting?”

Grassegger said he is concerned that microtargeting provides different voters with different information. Ideally, Grassegger explained, “politics is about the common ground. In democracy, we are debating something that relates to everyone.”

He also expressed unease about the risk of Cambridge Analytica’s data getting into the hands of third parties. He said there have been “cases in Estonia where people have been physically targeted based on their online information. Even if it’s just a wacky company, they can still actually buy data on American citizens and trade it to whatever entity.”

Still, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, speaking to The Politic on condition of anonymity, argued that these concerns stem from a lack of awareness about data analytics.

In reality, everyone’s info is being bought and sold,” the former employee said. “What Cambridge Analytica is doing is nothing new.”

Since Cambridge Analytica buys most of its data from other firms, such as credit card companies and eBay, privacy concerns directed specifically at the company are misplaced.

Nonetheless, Grassegger said he was hopeful that fears about Cambridge Analytica might prompt further discussion about the dangers surrounding the lack of security in data analytics.

“Thanks to the beautiful claims this company has made, all of a sudden people understand how potentially dangerous this can become,” he said.

Some even allege that Cambridge Analytica helped Russia target disinformation during last year’s presidential election. The company is currently cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016. So far, no evidence suggests that Cambridge Analytica was either working with Russia or spreading false information. But on October 26, Nix revealed that he reached out to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange about releasing Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 missing emails. Assange confirmed that he was approached, but said that he rejected the request.

Although many data analytics firms face similar ethical questions, Cambridge Analytica has raised particular suspicion with its practices. The company has been accused of deleting displayed projects on the Cambridge Analytica website and backtracked on its claim that it used psychographics in the 2016 election after critics raised concerns about the legality of the practice. (Cambridge Analytica recently reversed the second claim and now maintains that it did use psychographics.)

Even so, Carroll said “a lot of people really want to be skeptical of [Cambridge Analytica] just to be skeptical, so that it doesn’t get power. They want to discredit this company because it’s dangerous to mythologize its power.”

Similarly, Carroll noted that “academics are very hesitant to admit anything capable of this company because it only encourages them,” while traditional pollsters know that acknowledging its success “would destabilize their whole discipline.” But perhaps most importantly, people simply “don’t want to admit that propaganda works, that we fit into psychological patterns, that we are predictable and can be sorted. No one wants to admit that this is possible.”

It might not be. Some are skeptical that the firm has the ability to convince voters based on their personalities.

“Psychographics are a very small part of what they do,” said the former employee.

They explained that “most of the population gets around the same score,” offering the most convincing claim so far that the “secret sauce” Nix uses to sell the company is more like grocery-store mayonnaise.

“In reality, it is extremely difficult to predict someone’s personality,” they said.

At a post-election panel last December, Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica’s Head of Product, maintained that his firm did not use psychographics for the Trump campaign. And when Carroll requested and reviewed the data the company had on him, he saw no psychographic scores.

But if not psychographics, what helped Ted Cruz rise from thirteenth to second in the Republican primary after hiring Cambridge Analytica’s? What caused Trump’s campaign to increase spending on the company from 250,000 dollars in August 2016 to five million dollars the next month? These two cases indicate that Cambridge Analytica is no fraud. Perhaps the answer to the company’s success is less sexy: They might just be a very good data analytics firm.

The controversy might be overblown. There are credible claims that Barack Obama’s campaign, using a firm called DSPolitical, used microtargeting on a similar scale in 2012.

“It should have been a scandal back then,” Grassegger argued, although he noted that “it was a very different context,” since fewer people were using smartphones and social media.

Facebook has been criticized for allowing so-called “dark posts.” Dark posts are bits of content that are only seen by one target individual and cannot be traced.

Cambridge Analytica is just a diversion,” journalist McKenzie Funk told The Politic. “Facebook is the main issue.

Facebook went public in 2012, and, since then, the company has been increasingly reliant on ads for its profits. Funk suggested that the recent media attention devoted to the quantity and power of dark posts and other Facebook advertisements might be Mark Zuckerberg’s “Frankenstein moment,” where he realizes how powerful the machine he has built can be.

Recently, Zuckerberg announced a series of reforms and changes to increase the transparency of dark posts. But Funk is skeptical.

“It’s not going to change ad targeting that much,” he said. “The core of the entire business is granularity on people and selling ads to those people based on that granularity, so that is not going to go away.”

Psychographics aside, questions still remain about Cambridge Analytica. Perhaps the most pressing involves the company’s military links: Cambridge Analytica is a subsidiary of Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), an international military contractor. According to writer Sue Halpern, who spoke with The Politic, the U.S. military used SCL psychological operations during the Afghanistan War to sway Afghan citizens’ opinions.

The former employee described the company as “pretty transparent” about its affiliation with SCL. If they are public knowledge, are these ties a serious issue?

Many would argue they are as serious as it gets. Carroll calls this fact “the shocking thing people don’t want to admit.”

He expressed concern that tools employed by the military are now being used to sell fabric softener and swing elections.

“Cambridge Analytica is a brand that’s very useful to obscure the military roots of this company,” Carroll said. “However, that falls apart the minute you request your data, because you get it from SCL.”

SCL’s status as a British corporation raises further fears about the movement of data across borders. (Despite its influence in the American presidential election, Cambridge Analytica is named not for Cambridge, Massachusetts but for the University of Cambridge in the UK.)

“Americans should be offended our data has left the country,” Carroll declared. “Since data flows around like air, whose laws control it?

Since Cambridge Analytica transferred U.S. voter information to Britain during last year’s campaign, the firm’s ability to use that data would have been constrained by British law. There are limits to what you can do with profiling in Britain, and according to Carroll, “from British legal minds, they don’t think what Cambridge Analytica did is lawful. It can’t be compliant to regulators’ rules and guidance.”

Grassegger was less certain, saying that “the legal experts we contacted were not sure whether you could practically construct loopholes” in British and EU law that would make Cambridge Analytica’s activities permissible.

Despite being involved in multiple investigations and the subject of several lawsuits, Cambridge Analytica “has not curtailed its activity in the least,” Carroll said.

But the company’s ownership structure has done little to quell suspicion. Grassegger related claims that “some of the…SCL branches have been partly owned by people close to Putin.” He did, however, qualify these allegations, saying, “I did not find a definitive conclusion.”

It is widely known that conservative billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah own 90 percent of Cambridge Analytica. They were linked with Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon, who served on Cambridge Analytica’s board and subsequently in the Trump administration, although Robert Mercer appeared to distance himself from Bannon’s views in a letter explaining his recent decision to sell Breitbart shares and step down as co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. Carroll noted that Bannon still has links to Cambridge Analytica, citing an outstanding loan.

Jane Mayer, a writer for The New Yorker who profiled Robert Mercer, wrote in an email to The Politic that “the Mercers will use Cambridge Analytica to advance their candidates and at the moment, they’re backing the slate of populist nationalists drafted by Steve Bannon.”

Cambridge Analytica’s empowerment of right-wing causes is not limited to the U.S. The company was also associated with the Leave.EU campaign in the lead-up to last year’s EU referendum in the UK. Nigel Farage, one of the most zealous proponents of Brexit, has campaigned for both Trump and Roy Moore, the Bannon and Mercer-backed candidate for U.S. Senator from Alabama. What’s more, Andy Wigmore, Director of Communications for Leave.EU, said he would join a campaign for California secession. As Carroll put it, “the bad boys of Brexit are going to continue to work in the U.S.

Bannon and Mercer are looking to run hard-right America First candidates, Halpern said, in order to make traditional conservatives look weak and cultivate a new alt-Republican party. Cambridge Analytica might be the medium for them to succeed.

Or it might not. Halpern described Cambridge Analytica as a “gun for hire.” The former employee stated that the company will “take whoever’s offering the most money. They don’t have any agenda.” Cambridge Analytica has worked on liberal causes around the world, but in America, it remains unlikely that Mercer will allow the Democrats to purchase the company’s services.

Nonetheless, the data analytics industry will likely follow in Cambridge Analytica’s footsteps. Despite the issues surrounding the company and its tactics, Halpern says Democrats and Republicans alike will soon be reliant on similar firms. Facebook’s announced reforms will not stop dark posts altogether, and data analytics firms will continue to thrive.

“Is everyone going to do this now?” Halpern asked rhetorically. She was sure of the answer. “Yes.”