Annotation – Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm

In the third and final part of their undercover investigation, Channel 4 News captures chief executives from Cambridge Analytica explaining how the firm used social media analytics to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Donald Trump. After this report was aired in March, Cambridge Analytica executives denied using social media analytics to win the election for Donald Trump. In earlier parts of this report, they claim to always tell the truth, while adding that actually people may not know or care what’s true and what isn’t. Anyway if people were misled it’s not their fault. Also, these are not the ‘driods you’re looking for.

I like how Cambridge Analytica markets itself as a master of data science and psychographics, then claims these things don’t actually work. I’d love to see that TED Talk.

Here’s the video, and my final annotation in the series of “non-academic sources for which my final project grade will likely be docked.” No one explicitly said I couldn’t use journalistic resources. Besides, I didn’t post this.

The annotation follows the video:

Channel 4 News. “Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm.” Mar 20, 2018,

In this third part of Channel 4 News’s investigative report on Cambridge Analytica, CEO Alexander Nix discusses how the company was responsible for the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign,” Nix says, “and our data informed all the strategy.”

“Data Driven Behavior Change” ~ Cambridge Analytica advertisement

Some data on American voters isn’t difficult to acquire. The Trump campaign had names and email addresses of 230 American voters. Other data sources provide many layers of personal information on income, gender, shopping habits, hobbies, and of course voter registration and participation. Use of this information in political campaigns is nothing new, but Cambridge Analytica claimed it was taking the aggregation and deployment of personal data to a new and much higher level.

In a series of four meetings between Cambridge Analytica executives and representatives from a fictional candidate for office in Sri Lanka, Channel 4 News recorded the Cambridge Analyticas claims on video.

Chief Data Officer Dr. Alex Tayler explained their strategy. “When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by three million votes, but won the electoral college vote, that’s down to the data and the research. You did your rallies in the right locations, you moved more people out in those key swing states on election day, that’s how we won the election (by 40,000 votes in three states).”

The report explains that Cambridge Analytica grew from a British company specializing in military intelligence and psychological warfare. It began building psychological profiles from social media data, and came to the attention of American billionaire and computer scientist Robert Mercer, a champion of ultra-conservative political causes. Mercer arranged for Breitbart senior editor Steve Bannon to become a vice president of Cambridge Analytica, and began investing millions of dollars in the company.

Channel 4 reports that in June 2016 when the Trump campaign was on the ropes, the Mercers stepped in with a massive cash infusion and the support of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica. Trump’s communication strategy became based on the Cambridge Analytica model as explained by CEO Nix: “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.”

In an era of massive campaign spending by candidates and third parties, Tayler explained how Cambridge Analytica works: communications are divided into mostly positive messaging from the official campaign, and negative messaging from allied Super PACs running behind the campaign. For example, the ubiquitous “Defeat Crooked Hillary” ads where paid for by PACS and third parties, but designed by Cambridge Analytica. They created hundreds of  variations based on this theme, and arranged for them to be spread on Facebook, YouTube, and Google. Advertisements using these creatives were paid for by the organization Make American Number 1,  funded by Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah. Cambridge Analytica leveraged other “proxy” organizations aligned with conservative political causes to spread the same messages. Through these methods of distribution, the origin of the messages could remain hidden.

The scale of disinformation in the 2016 presidential campaign was unprecedented. And while Cambridge Analytica was driving the Trump strategy, it remains unclear if there was any connection between the firm and other disinformation campaigns emanating from Russia, which Facebook now says reached 126 million Americans. The role and activities of Cambridge Analytica, and any possible coordination with Russian actors in the election, are now part of the wide-ranging investigation by Special Council Robert Mueller. ButCambridge Analytica is incorporated in the UK, and CEO Alexander Nix says the company has no intention of giving U.S. investigators any information about its foreign clients.

The Channel 4 News report is inconclusive as to whether claims by the firm for its data analytics and psychographic target prowess are merely marketing hype or something more. But it’s clear that strategies pioneered by Cambridge Analytica, using big data from social media to profile and target voters in key locations and demographics, secretly leveraging proxies to seed the internet with negative information, and “putting the right message in front of the right person at the right moment,” are likely to be with us during the next election and beyond.