The Cambridge Analytica story is what inspired me to pursue research on the details and methods of data processing that form the technical basis of using social media metadata for psychographic purposes, and the role of programming in accessing, collecting, processing, and using social media data, and the specific tools and workflow that enable this work. But I believe we can’t fully understand the technical story without the political and social context. Technology isn’t neutral, and our values are embedded in every tool we build.
Channel 4 News. “Cambridge Analytica Uncovered: Secret filming reveals election tricks.” YouTube, March 19, 2018, https://youtu.be/mpbeOCKZFfQ
In this segment of Channel 4 News’s investigative report on Cambridge Analytica, top executives of the company are captured on a hidden video camera discussing what they can do for a candidate running for office in Sri Lanka, who unknown to them has been made up by the Channel 4 team. The executives boast of their ability to seed the internet with just the right messages to undermine political opponents. They discuss campaign communication strategy based on research on messages leveraging people’s fears. And while they at first claim to always be truthful, they allude to the value of messages that may give people a mistaken view of the truth.
“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then, and then watch it grow.”~ Cambridge Analytica managing director Mark Turnbull
In making his case for hiring Cambridge Analytica, CEO Alexander Nix claims credit for the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “We were able to use data to identify that there was very large quantities of persuadable voters there that could be influenced to vote for the Trump campaign.”
They pitch an approach to campaigning that seeks to mine people’s deepest fears, that can then be triggered by messaging strategies. They say Cambridge Analytica’s job is to dig deeper that anyone else into people’s “deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.”
“It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.” ~ Cambridge Analytica managing director Mark Turnbull
This approach played out in the 2017 Kenyan general election, where Cambridge Analytica worked on behalf of the incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta. The election was characterized by misinformation and violence. 90 percent of Kenyans say they saw false stories spread on social media. Ads from unknown sources, but later attributed to Kenyatta, attacked his main rival Raila Odinga as utterly corrupt. Some targeted specific demographics with messages intended to appeal to their fears, such as an ad targeted to women claiming a sharp rise in the rate of maternal disease, implying the fault was Odinga’s.
Cambridge Analytica publicly denied it was involved with the negative ad campaigns, and indeed in any form with the Kenyan election. But in the Channel 4 News undercover video, managing director Mark Turnbull bragged that they ran the Kenyatta campaigns in 2013 and 2017. He claimed that Cambridge Analytica had written all the speeches and “staged the whole thing.”
A video advertisement for Cambridge Analytica, included in the Channel 4 News report, emphasizes the claim: “Political campaigns have changed. When elections are won by small but crucial numbers of votes, putting the right message in front of the right person at the right moment is more important than ever.”
Cambridge Analytica chief data officer Alex Taylor is seen in the undercover video explaining the use of social media analytics, segmenting, and targeting based on how people are likely to react to certain messages and images. Their sales pitch then turned to an offer of help with another kind of intelligence: spying on the other candidates.
Digging in the dirt
Turnbull describes the process of digging up dirt on opponents. He says they use former spies from agencies like MI5 and MI6, who now work for private intelligence-gathering companies. “They will find all the skeletons in his closet, quietly, discretely, and give you a report.” This information is then released at the right moment to create maximum political damage. “It has to happen without anyone thinking that’s propaganda.”
To avoid revealing that Cambridge Analytica was involved in the campaign, they suggested contracting under a different name.
I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you
“We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows.” ~ Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix
As the fictional campaign representative asks what expertise Cambridge Analytica can bring to effectively dig up damaging information about the opponent, Nix replies: “Deep digging is interesting, but you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true, and make sure that’s video recorded…instantly having video evidence of corruption, putting it on the internet.”
Nix also discussed Cambridge Analytica’s history of success with other tactics, such as sending girls to the candidate’s house. “We could bring some Ukrainians in…you know what I’m saying? They are very beautiful, I find that works very well.”
Fake IDs and websites
During the undercover video, Nix occasionally backs off from explicit claims of illegal or dishonest activities. He then spells out how Cambridge Analytica can go about hiding its activities using fake identities, for example posing as tourists. He says they can set up fake websites to spread messages. Turnbull describes setting up a front company to run a “very, very successful project” in an Eastern European country. “No one even knew they were there…they just ghosted in, then ghosted out.”