The secret story of how American minds were manipulated during the 2016 election campaign and how Donald Trump’s backers are making money off it.
Psychologist Michal Kosinski switched on the TV in his Zurich hotel room on the morning of November ninth. The headlines were all about Donald Trump’s against-all-odds win in the U.S. presidential election. The news filled the Polish-born academic with dread, Kosinski told Das Magazine. The 34-year-old psychologist was sure of one thing: the scientific model he had created helped elect Trump.
Kosinski is a pioneer in the field of psychometry. It’s the science of predicting behavior using a psychological profile gleaned from social media activity. There are five criteria which analysts use to define your personality called the OCEAN model.
- Openness to new ideas and learning.
- Conscientiousness is a measure of your reliability, promptness and organization.
- Extraversion measures openness and sociability.
- Agreeableness refers to your kindness, empathy and warmth.
- Neuroticism measures your emotional stability and rate of negative emotions.
In a 2012 study, Kosinski and two colleagues at Cambridge University were able to predict any person’s race, political affiliations and sexual orientation by analyzing someone’s social media activity.
While at Cambridge, Kosinski met fellow researcher Aleksandr Kogan. Russian-born Kogan asked about using Kosinski’s method for election manipulation. “The whole thing began to stink,” Kosinski told German Das Magazine.
Kosinski wanted nothing to do with using his research for malevolent means and broke off contact with Kogan. Since then, Kosinski has travelled the world lecturing about the dangers of ‘big data’ manipulation warning it can “threaten the welfare, freedom, or even the lives of men.”
Kogan, who has since changed his name to Alexandr Specter, had very different plans for his colleagues’ research.
After the invasion of the Ukraine, a Russian born researcher at Cambridge University began harvesting private data of 30 million U.S. Facebook users for Cambridge Analytica.
In 2014, Kogan founded “Global Science Research”, which was funded by London-based Scientific Communications Laboratory (SCL) and its subsidiary Cambridge Analytica. Kogan’s company hired 185,000 Americans to take an online survey and download a Facebook app. Once downloaded, the app gave Kogan information on 30 million unsuspecting Facebook users who were Facebook friends with the original survey-takers, according to The Intercept. Kogan had used Kosinski’s model to build an an algorithm to profile American voters.
In 2015, Kogan’s app was shut down because of complaints about privacy concerns. By then Kogan had gathered data on millions of Americans. “No one in this larger group of 30 million knew that “likes” and demographic data from their Facebook profiles were being harvested by political operatives hired to influence American voters,” according to The Intercept.
SCL has since distanced itself from the use of this data and Kogan’s GSR. “We do not do any work with Facebook likes,” Cambridge Analytica spokesman Lindsey Platts, said in a statement. The company “has no relationship with GSR,” Platts said.
The Trump Campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $6 million for a database of 220 million U.S. voters including private details of their personality and activities.
In 2016, Cambridge Analytica, under the leadership of CEO Alexander Nix and vice-president Stephen Bannon helped manipulate the British electorate to vote for Brexit. The previously unknown company had achieved the unthinkable in breaking up the E.U. and then began to turn its attention to U.S. politics. Donald Trump even tweeted on Aug 18:
Every time you take one of those Facebook quizzes, you know the ones, which celebrity are you most like? Which Game of Thrones character are you? What country are you really from? You may think you’re taking an innocuous quiz, but what you’re really doing is giving a data mining firm like Cambridge Analytica, “express consent” to profile you. The company then cross-references that information with other data and creates an OCEAN profile of you which is even more accurate than a partner or family member could provide.
Donald Trump paid Cambridge Analytica $6 million for work on his 2016 campaign. The company’s data scientists were able to figure out Trump voters who were “very low in neuroticism, quite low in openness and slightly conscientious.” Once profiled, Cambridge Analytica could target their specific interests with tailor-made election messages and specific news content (real or fake) to work on their emotions, interests and regional location.
Think of it as a digital soapbox where the speaker is digitally crafted to appeal to your every fear and desire and pinpoint exactly where you live. Take for example, Donald Trump’s focus on the Opioid crisis and immigration during the 2016 election campaign. All of the messages were designed to surgically target voters with these seemingly “local” concerns in important swing states.
— BBC Stories (@bbcstories) August 13, 2017
As Russian hackers targeted state voters rolls, Cambridge Analytica provided the Trump campaign with private voting history.
Cambridge Analytica assembled a database for the Trump campaign of 220 million voters known as Project Alamo. The data set included voter registration records, gun ownership records, credit card purchase histories, internet viewing history, car purchases and information from data-mining companies like Experian PLC, Datalogix, Epsilon and Acxiom Corporation.
Theresa Hong was a key digital officer for the Trump campaign. Hong told the BBC the data-set also included information about voting history. “Some of the attributes would be when was the last time they voted, who did they vote for.” In response to a question on how Cambridge Analytica would know all that information, Hong replied, “that’s their secret sauce.” (video above).
You’ll recall Russian hackers were able to infiltrate voters rolls in almost every state before the election. “We had to assume that they actually tried to at least rattle the doorknobs on all 50, and we just happened to find them in a few of them.” Michael Daniel, who led the Obama White House effort to secure the vote against Russian intrusions, told Time Magazine.
Add to this, a mysterious server in Trump Tower which is suspected of compiling a massive database of hacked voter information with Russia’s Alfa Bank and the DeVos family-owned Spectrum Health, and you begin to see a clearer picture of how Cambridge Analytica may have gotten all this data. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company was until recently owned by a British-Iranian businessman with ties to Putin-linked Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash who is wanted for bribery by the U.S. and was allegedly involved in a racketeering scheme with Paul Manafort.
From their digital headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, the Trump campaign placed between 70,000-175,000 different pieces of content on Facebook every day specifically targeting profiles provided from Cambridge Analytica. Trump’s digital advertising chief, Gary Coby, likened the effort to “high-frequency trading” and says Trump used Facebook “like no one else in politics has ever done.” In fact, all of Trump’s $85 million digital budget went into Facebook coffers.
Much of the targeted content that was delivered to voters was news created by Cambridge Analytica’s sister company Breitbart and Russian sponsored sites like Wikileaks, Sputnik and Russia Today. The FBI is investigating the role these news organizations played in Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections, according to McClatchy.
Trump Administration inked a $496,000 deal with Cambridge Analytica while Michael Flynn and Stephen Bannon were still in office which presents a possible conflict of interest.
Cambridge Analytica is partly owned by New York hedge fund manager and major Trump donor Robert Mercer, according to Politico. Donald Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen Bannon was until recently the company’s vice-president and owned a stake in the company which could be worth as much as $5 Million. Trump’s former National Security Adviser Lt-Gen Michael Flynn, a compromised Russian asset, also disclosed he played an advisory role for Cambridge Analytica.
On February 17, the Trump Administration paid $496,000 upfront to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL in a contract with the U.S. State Department. SCL’s role at the State Department is to “assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns and provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats,” according to the Washington Post.
SCL is also working a deal with the Pentagon to teach them “how to conduct effective psychological operations,” says the Post. SCL has hired new staffers and opened a new office just up the street from the White House. SCL’s effort is being driven by a “former aide to now-departed national security adviser Michael Flynn, who served as an adviser to the company in the past,” says the Post.
Considering the senior roles Mercer, Bannon and Flynn held within Cambridge Analytica, the new Washington operation of SLC and the State Department deal could well indicate a conflict of interest.
More importantly, the way Cambridge Analytica gained access to some 30 million Facebook accounts without users’ consent, along with private voting records, raises serious privacy concerns.
The office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating all aspects of a possible conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to sway the election. “That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Former FBI Director James Comey testified before a congressional committee in March.