Cambridge Analytica, the secretive British data-harvesting company linked to 2016’s twin shocks of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, is back in the news again. An extended investigation by the Guardian in the UK has revealed the extraordinary amount of information trawled by the firm and its collaborators in both countries.
…in 2014, 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested by a UK-based academic, Aleksandre Kogan, and his company Global Science Research.
Kogan assembled the information through an app on the site – it collected details of Americans who were paid to take a personality test, but also gathered data on those people’s Facebook friends.
Kogan had a deal to share this information with Cambridge Analytica. But according to a whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, most of this personal information had been taken without authorisation. He said Cambridge Analytica used it to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
Wylie, a Canadian who previously worked for Cambridge Analytica, has lifted the lid on this and other practices at the firm, which he describes as a “full-service propaganda machine”
On the business background of the publicity-adverse company, the newspaper notes that:
Robert Mercer, a key Trump supporter and donor, gave $15m in funding to Cambridge Analytica. Mercer, who also funded the rightwing website Breitbart, was introduced to the firm by Steve Bannon. Bannon, who was on its board from 2014 to 2016, headed the last phase of Trump’s election campaign and then served as his chief strategist.
The company worked on three candidates’ campaigns for the presidency, including Trump’s. On its website it describes analysing millions of data points to identify the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about and then sending them messages to “move them to action”. Voters in 17 states were polled every day, and online advertising and social media used to send them messages. The company claims that in this way it boosted donations and turn out and contributed to Trump’s victory.
Cambridge Analytica is closely linked with Aggregate IQ, an obscure data analytics business in Canada, which was paid £32,750 by the Democratic Unionist Party, the hard-right grouping in the north-east of Ireland, to target voters with online pro-Brexit ads in 2016. The DUP along with two other organisations, BeLeave and Veterans for Britain, would eventually spend an astonishing total of £757,750 with the Canadian firm, along with millions of pounds from the main Leave lobbying organisation. (The party would also contract the services of Aggregate IQ to target key demographics in the bitterly-contested elections to the cross-community assembly at Stormont in March 2017.)
In the case of the Democratic Unionists, its cash came through a “donation” from the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), a clandestine right-wing body led by Richard Cook, a former senior leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland. In total, the CRC funnelled an unprecedented £435,000 through the DUP to fund a major advertising blitz against the European Union in several British cities during the plebiscite of June 2016. The ultimate source of that money remains unknown with the minority Conservative Party government of Theresa May in London agreeing to keep it hidden from legal scrutiny at the insistence of her parliamentary allies, Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party.
You can learn more on Cambridge Analytica in these two related reports from Channel 4 News in Britain and the Guardian itself. For Aggregate IQ we still await a full investigation of its activities.