Cambridge Analytica: What Is It? How Did It Start, and Where Is It Going?
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 audiences 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.
Cambridge Analytica Logo
Who are the key players in the CA story and what are their roles?
- Michael Kosinski - Early researcher on 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 Brietbart 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 Brietbart News
- Chris Wyle - CA Director of Research and CA whistle blower
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 questionnaire 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
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, 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 questionaire it was even possible to deduce whether someone's parents were divorced.
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 in which its 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
In 2014, Steve Bannon was looking for a way of promoting his ant-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
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 and Ben Carson campaign 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
Alexander Nix is the CEO of CA who recently was suspended due to impending ethics violations.
Using Kosinki’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 psychometric 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 a presentation that Nix made 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.
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 Investigagion
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 their profiles were being used by CA.
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 Zukerberg, CEO of Facebook will testify to 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 the 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. https://youtu.be/mpbeOCKZFfQ
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 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.
Prior to 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
Currently, Michael Kosinski is an Assistant Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He holds a PhD in Psychology from University of Cambridge, an MPhil in Psychometrics, and a MS in Social Psychology. He never accepted the 500K from SCL.
Currently, Dr David Stillwell is Deputy Director of The Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge.He never accepted the 500K from SCL.
Mark Zuckerberg will testify to congress on April 11, 2018
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 setup as the scapegoat of the investigation.
Steve Bannon has been banned from Breitbart News and is using 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 a 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 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.
Now that you have an understanding of psychometric targeting, do you think it is ethical to use it to influence the outcome of elections?
Do you think Trump or his opponents would use it in the next election?
Do you think that psychometric targeting can be used as a psych ops weapon to change the culture and behavior of foreign entities?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Mike Russo