Skip to main content

Cambridge Analytica: What Is It? How Did It Start, and Where Is It Going?

Mike has a keen interest in the effects of politics in our culture. He has a unique way of simplifying complex concepts.

The name Cambridge Analytica and the logo are both created by Steve Bannon.

The name Cambridge Analytica and the logo are both created by Steve Bannon.

What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a London-based company founded by Steve Bannon and Alexander Nix and funded by Robert Mercer. It uses big data analysis and a process called psychometric targeting to change audience behavior. Instead of using demographics to target groups of people, Psychometrics targets individuals at a personal level by analyzing big data profiles to influence commercial outcomes as well as electoral outcomes.

Author's Note: Cambridge Analytica will hereinafter be called CA, unless otherwise specified.

Who Are the Key Players in the CA Story and What Are Their Roles?

  • Michael Kosinski - Early researcher on the use of psychometrics
  • David Stillwell - Michael Kosinski's research partner
  • Alexander Kogan - Russian - American Psychology professor at Cambridge University, later employed by CA to implement psychometric targeting
  • Alexander Nix - CEO and co-founder of CA
  • Steve Bannon - Was Trump's chief strategist, Co-founder of CA, and CEO of Breitbart News
  • Mark Zuckerberg - CEO of Facebook and provider of 87 million members profiles to CA
  • Ben Carson - User of CA
  • Ted Cruz - User of CA
  • John Bolton - User of CA
  • Donald Trump - User of CA
  • Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer -Funded CA; campaigns for Carson, Cruz, and Trump and for Steve Bannon's Breitbart News
  • Chris Wyle - CA Director of Research and CA whistleblower

The remainder of this article endeavors to connect the pieces of CA from its inception to where it currently exists. While researching this information, it became apparent that each player could easily warrant their own chapter in a book. I had to restrain myself from going down a rabbit hole with each of the players.

The Inception of Cambridge Analytica (CA)

It all started when Michael Kosinski, a student in Warsaw, came to Cambridge University in England to work on his PhD involving Psychometric testing.

Psychometric tests are a scientific test method used to measure individuals' mental capabilities and behavioral style. The tests are designed to measure candidates' suitability for a role based on the required personality characteristics and aptitude (or cognitive abilities).

While working on the project, Kosinski partnered with David Stillwell, who had developed an app called "My Personality." It used a model that was developed in the 1980s by two teams of psychologists. The model was used to assess people based on five personality traits, known as the "Big Five." The model can be described by an acronym called OCEAN.

Before the internet, surveys and questionnaires had to be completed by hand on paper. But now, with the internet, it is very easy to collect and analyze big data sets. Listed below are the components of the Big Five model and what they can reveal.

Openness – How open are you to new experiences?

Conscientiousness – How much of a perfectionist are you?

Extroversion – How sociable are you?

Agreeableness – How considerate are you?

Neuroticism – Are you easily upset?

Source: The Guardian

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

David Stillwell (left), Michael Kosinski (right)

David Stillwell (left), Michael Kosinski (right)

The Questionnaire

Kosinski and his team provided test subjects with questionnaires in the form of online quizzes. From their responses, they calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski's team compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects including what they "liked," shared or posted on Facebook or what gender, age, and place of residence they specified, thus enabling the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations with personal profiles.

In 2012, they found that by just sampling 68 Facebook “likes” that people had posted, they were able to determine the following with a high degree of accuracy.

  • Skin color – 95% accuracy
  • Sexual orientation – 88% accuracy
  • Democrat or Republican – 88% accuracy

But it didn't stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use could all be determined. From the questionnaire, it was even possible to deduce whether someone's parents were divorced.

Source: Motherboard

Aleksander Kogan

In early 2014, Alexsander Kogan, a Russian-American, psychology professor in an adjacent department, approached Kosinski about a British company called Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL). He said SCL was interested in the app, "MyPersonality" but was not at liberty to reveal the purpose. But, Kogan said SCL was ready to make Kosinski a very generous offer. After doing research, Kosinski found that SCL provided marketing based on psychological modeling. One of its core focuses was influencing the outcome of elections. At that time, Kosinski did not know that SCL had worked with many foreign entities and that it was the parent of a group of companies, including CA whose mission was to participate in US elections. When Kosinski and Stillwell found out, they refused to work with SCL and Kogan because they felt what they were doing was unethical, even though they were offered $500,000.

Source: The Atlantic

Alekzander Kogan

Alekzander Kogan

Steve Bannon

In 2014, Steve Bannon sought a way to promote his anti-establishment, far-right, populist agenda. He joined forces with Nix, Kogan, and Wylie. Wylie introduced Kogan to Nix and Bannon. At the time, Kogan was still working for Cambridge University as a psychology researcher and had developed an app called "thisisyourdigitallife", that was downloaded by 270,000 users. Facebook’s policy, which has since changed, allowed Kogan to also collect data, including names, home towns, religious affiliations and likes on all of the Facebook “friends” of those users. Kogan shared that data with Cambridge Analytica for its growing database on American voters.

Source: The New York Times

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon

Robert and Rebekah Mercer

Robert Mercer is a multibillionaire who worked for IBM as a computer scientist and made his money in revolutionary breakthroughs in disciplines called language processing. His contributions included speech recognition systems, text-to-speech synthesizers, automated voice response systems, web search engines, text editors, and language instruction materials, to name a few.

For you techies out there, you know that these technologies require very complex algorithms and logic circuits and are currently used in our cell phones and other digital devices.

Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebeckah hate the Clintons with a passion, for whatever reasons. They are not in the public limelight and mainly operate behind the scenes while funding conservative entities and interests.

They have hedge funds that have yielded billions of dollars for which they funded many enterprises, including Steve Bannon's funding of 10 million for Breitbart News. Mercer was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz's and Ben Carson's campaigns while using CA, but when they fell out of the presidential race, he put 13.5 million into the Trump campaign. He also funded CA for an additional 10 million.

Source: Washington Post

Robert and Rebekah Mercer

Robert and Rebekah Mercer

Alexander Nix

Alexander Nix is CA's CEO, who was recently suspended due to impending ethics violations.

Using Kosinski's model, Nix claims it can predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America. According to Nix, CA's marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.

It is important to understand the difference between demographic-based marketing and psychometric-based marketing. Demographic marketing targets groups of people based on where they live and their likes and dislikes. It has been the marketing technique of choice until psychometrics came to the forefront.

Psychometric-based marketing can micro-target individuals based on their likes. dislikes, and personality profile. They can even tailor different messages to different people living in the same community or even a next-door neighbor.

During the Trump campaign, CA armed canvassers who went door-to-door with phone apps that gave them the information they needed to influence voters based on their profile and home address.

This methodology looks quite similar to the one that Michal Kosinski once developed. Nix claims, "We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America, that is 220 million people,"

The following video is an excerpt from Nix's presentation at the Concordia Summit. It is 11 minutes long, but it is worth every minute of it to understand what psychometric targeting can provide.

Note: Psychographics is another name for psychometrics.

Mueller's Investigation

CA has been under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Nix contacted Julian Assange of WikiLeaks that summer to discuss hacked Democratic emails.

CA and Facebook Under Investigation

CA has obtained 87 million profiles from Facebook. This was not only from Facebook members' primary accounts but from friends' accounts as well, without the friends having any knowledge that CA was using their profiles.

This was accomplished by Kogan’s app, called “thisismydigitallife,” It was a personality quiz that Facebook users could take. However, to take the quiz, users had to consent to give the app access to their and their friends’ Facebook profiles.

Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer are under investigation, and Michael Nix has been suspended as the CEO of CA. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testified before a congressional committee on April 11, 2018.

Channel 4 News in the UK ran a sting operation on a sales pitch given to a staff member of Channel 4 posing as a Sri Lanka government agent interested in what CA could do to change the behavior of his government. Channel 4 played the video of their meeting showing Nix suggesting that they could bring in women from Ukraine to entrap opponents in compromising situations. if you are interested, here is the link to the undercover video staged by UK Channel 4. It is 19 minutes long but shows you the far-reaching breadth of CA.

Source: UK Channel 4 News

The Whistle Blower: Christopher Wylie

Chris Wylie was the Director of Research at CA and has the natural ability to work with big data sets, algorithms, and analysis. Don't let the pink hair in his photo below fool you. He is very talented at what he does, and thank God, he has a conscience.

Before the run-up of Trump's campaign, Steve Bannon was looking for ways to persuade voters to advance his nationalist, anti-establishment, ultra-right wing agenda. According to Wylie, Bannon was using psychometric targeting to see what messages resonated with young, white American voters with a conservative bent. He found that "Make America Great Again, America First, Drain the Swamp, and Deep State" were some of the terms they could relate to and influence their vote. They also responded positively to "build a wall" to keep immigrants from entering the country.

As part of a Federal Trade Commission investigation and a UK parliamentary select committee hearing, Wylie stated he was aware of how Kogan's app used Facebook data to not only obtain the profiles of primary users but also of their friends, without the friends even knowing that their data was being used to micro-target them.

The FTC is continuing their investigation based on CA knowingly breaching Facebook users' privacy and that CA is a foreign company interfering in our election process.

Source: Vox and FTC



Michael Kosinski is an Assistant Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Cambridge, an MPhil in Psychometrics, and an MS in Social Psychology. He never accepted the 500K from SCL.

Dr David Stillwell is Deputy Director of The Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. He never accepted the 500K from SCL.

Alexander Nix has been suspended from his role as the CEO of CA.

Aleksander Kogan has been banned from Facebook and is back in London. He feels he has been set up as the scapegoat of the investigation.

Steve Bannon has been banned from Breitbart News and uses psychometric targeting to influence the behavior and culture of foreign entities.

Chris Wylie has been banned from Facebook.

After writing this piece, I realized psychometric targeting is such a powerful tool to influence people in different directions that it can be used for good as well as bad.

From my research, I have found the jury is still out on whether it is effective as a tool to influence people's thinking. According to Alexander Nix, it is a very powerful tool. According to others experts in the field, it is nothing more than hype. There is no hard evidence that Trump won the election solely based on psychometric targeting. However, he does conduct his rallies in political arenas where psychometric targeting was used.

© 2018 Mike Russo


Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on November 08, 2019:

Thanks Kenny. I appreciate your comment.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on November 08, 2019:

Thanks Kenny. I appreciate your comment.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on November 08, 2019:

Thanks Kenny. I appreciate your comment.

Kenneth D Arone on November 08, 2019:

Good Article. I enjoyed it very much

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on August 18, 2018:

Don: Thanks for stopping by. It sounds like you have a great job. I agree with you about what they can get from databases today.

Rex on August 18, 2018:

Thanks Mike. This was clearly well researched. I'm always pleased to learn a bit. In my current job. I help train AI to use consumer data for marketing purposes (not political at all). It's almost surreal what AI can glean from user-generated data.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on May 16, 2018:

Here is the latest:Chris Wylie the Whistle Blower testifies before the U.S. Senate.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on May 14, 2018:

Cathrine: Thank you so much for your comments. I'm still waiting for the indictments of Aleksander Kogan and Alexander Nix for being foreign entities influencing the outcome of Amercan elections.

Steve Bannon has flown the coop, but I'm hoping they catch up with him. I think he may be in Europe planning his comeback.

I agree with your last sentence. Right now we have Sean Hannity as the Minister of Propaganda. He and Trump are playing to their base for re-election of the glorious leader.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on May 14, 2018:

You have done a wonderful job with this. You have put all of the pieces together for me.

Psychometric testing reminds me of atomic energy--it can be a transformative force for good, but it seems all good technologies are quickly seized by evil people and used as a transformative force for evil.

In your poll, I said all candidates will use these techniques in future elections because as the saying goes, "you can't put the toothpaste back into the tube."

We will all have to learn how to identify propaganda and our own biases if democracy is to survive.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on April 12, 2018:

Paula: Good to hear from you again.

Suzie from Carson City on April 12, 2018:

No, I'm not the creator. It was sent to me and I appreciated the truth to it. Just wanted to share it.

That Robo truck blows my mind!

Thanks, Mike.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on April 12, 2018:

Jack: Are you sure you want to call the government a monopoly? Here is the definition of a monopoly:

1. complete control of the entire supply of goods or of a service in a

certain area or market

2. a large company that has a monopoly

3. complete ownership or control of something

How is the government a monopoly based on that definition?

George Bush passed the Patriot Act and he is a conservative. What does that have to do with liberals? If the liberals don't have any idea of what they are getting into, so do the conservatives.

Paul Ryan is leaving because of the impending mess we are all going to get into. The new deficit in 2020 will be over a trillion dollars and he will be retired. There are going to be huge cuts to medicare, thanks to Trump and Paul Ryan's tax reform.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on April 12, 2018:

That is why we have anti Monopoly laws, so that no one company can be so big, and too big to fail..., too big to know everything about us, but wait... the government is already a monopoly.

Why do we want to give them more power and more tax revenues?

The liberals have no idea what they are getting into?

Wait till the NSA get their hand on all our conversations and emails...and bank transactions...

Too late, they already have, thanks to the Patriots Act or abuses of them...

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on April 12, 2018:

Paula: Point well taken. If you created that dialog, I'm really impressed.

Here is truck that will make your pizza while it is being delivered. Not only that but it knows what kind of pizza you might order, because it is stored in its database from your previous orders. Thanks for stopping by. So your comment is closer to truth than we would like to believe.

Suzie from Carson City on April 12, 2018:


CALLER: Is this Gordon's Pizza?

GOOGLE: No sir, it's Google Pizza.

CALLER: I must have dialed a wrong number. Sorry.

GOOGLE: No sir, Google bought Gordon’s Pizza last month.

CALLER: OK.. I would like to order a pizza.

GOOGLE: Do you want your usual, sir?

CALLER: My usual? You know me?


According to our caller ID data sheet, the last 12 times you called you ordered

an extra-large pizza with three cheeses, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms

and meatballs on a thick crust.

CALLER: OK! That’s what I want …


May I suggest that this time you order a pizza with ricotta, arugula,

sun-dried tomatoes and olives on a whole wheat gluten free thin crust?

CALLER: What? I detest vegetables.

GOOGLE: Your cholesterol is not good, sir.

CALLER: How the hell do you know?


Well, we cross-referenced your home phone number with your medical records.

We have the result of your blood tests for the last 7 years.


Okay, but I do not want your rotten vegetable pizza! I already take

medication for my cholesterol.


Excuse me sir, but you have not taken your medication regularly.

According to our database, you only purchased a box of 30 cholesterol

tablets once, at Drug RX Network, 4 months ago.

CALLER: I bought more from another drugstore.

GOOGLE: That doesn’t show on your credit card statement.

CALLER: I paid in cash.

GOOGLE: But you did not withdraw enough cash according to your bank statement.

CALLER: I have other sources of cash.


That doesn’t show on your last tax return unless you bought them using an

undeclared income source, which is against the law.


GOOGLE: I'm sorry, sir, we use such information only with the sole intention of helping you.


Enough already! I'm sick to death of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and

all the others. I'm going to an island without internet, cable TV,

where there is no cell phone service and no one to watch me or spy on me

GOOGLE: I understand sir, but you need to renew your passport first. It expired 6 weeks ago…

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on April 10, 2018:

By Jack. I hope I have been able to shed some light for you.

Mike Russo (author) from Placentia California on April 10, 2018:

Jack: You are right about Syria being around for a long time. A three-way civil war has been going on since the time of Mohammad in the middle east.

There are three main sects who have hated each other since that time. They are the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds. They all have their own ideology as to who should lead the nation of Islam. They don't pay attention to borders that were drawn up by the British and French after WWI.

They pay allegiance to their religious sects. That's why Syria is killing its own people because they are living in country that is defined by borders not their religious affiliations.

The news media is doing all of us a huge disservice by calling them rebels and opposing forces. It blurs the line as to what is really going on. That's why we should not jump into the middle of a three-way civil war.