It has been a tough couple of months for Cambridge Analytica — the hot mess was stumbled upon, and the entire world is waiting for the massive storm, which is still on, to pass. Trump, Brexit, the elections — multiple state attorneys are now launching investigations in the US, wanting to find out everything there is about the abuse of as many as 50 million Facebook users and their personal data.
Cambridge Analytica is a British company with headquarters in London, New York, Washington, Brazil and Malaysia. Interestingly, it is a subsidiary company of ‘Strategic Communication Laboratories’. Presenting itself as a global leader in data-driven campaigning with more than 25 years of experience, supporting more than 100 campaigns across five continents, Cambridge Analytica was the first company in this field to redefine the relationship between data and political campaigns. Emphasising that knowing your electorate better than others is the most crucial factor if you want to achieve greater influence while lowering overall costs, this company added a lot of additional value and played the first role in winning presidential races, congressional and state elections in United States, using the data of more than 230 million American voters.
So, what does this company do? The answer is simple on this one: Cambridge Analytica can find your voters and encourage them to act — subtly. The key is to prepare data based political campaigns, and for this work, the company has a multitalented workforce of researchers, data scientists, behavioural psychologists, marketing experts, creatives and political analysts.
The follow-up question is ‘who are the clients of this company?’. Basically, Cambridge Analytica not only helped Trump in the battle of the presidential election but is also linked to various political campaigns all around the world. Analysts are gathering data to generate thousands
of messages which then target voters via their personal accounts on Facebook, Snapchat and others. The British press announced that Cambridge Analytica has also provided services to motivate Brexit via the company ‘Leave.EU’, although Nix denied this fact. The company has also worked in Italy, Kenya, South Africa, Columbia and Indonesia.
Everything looks clear at this point, doesn’t it? Well, that’s where all the drama begins: it appears that Cambridge Analytica has Facebook data on people who have not agreed to share it with them. Some say that this data might not have been sufficiently protected by Facebook. Also, the company may have acquired data about Facebook users under one pretext, and then sold it on to another with an intention to use it rather differently.
Skeptics say that the situation might actually be different, due to the fact that any company in this industry — including Cambridge Analytica — cannot have access to any data on any person, which has not been willingly shared by that person, at this point both with Facebook and several hundred other people that he or she is friends with on a certain social media channel. However, as the scandal grows and Cambridge Analytica happens to be in its epicenter, the situation is really tough right now: the company has been suspended from Facebook, and its CEO Nix has been suspended from the company’s board, due to many undercover reports capturing him making claims about the company using dirty tricks and bribing politicians, or entrapping them by “sending some girls to candidate’s house”.
Alongside the scandal, many discussions and questions have arisen — but let’s get back to the beginning for a second: we’ve already mentioned that before Cambridge Analytica, there was SCL Group, which specialised in messaging and PR work for governments, politicians and militaries all around the globe. SCL Group knew the importance of human psychology and how to target and persuade people, as well as a magnitude of big data and psychographic profiling. With clients in Indonesia, Thailand, Kenya, the UK and other countries, in 2013 SCL Group found a wealthy American — Steve Bannon — who invested a big amount of money and was the co-founder of Cambridge Analytica.
The story gets interesting here, as this is the point in which Cambridge Analytica started a new type of political targeting that was based on modelling individuals’ personalities: the company worked with researchers to develop a 120-question survey and asked all sorts of questions about personality and behaviour. Before that, it was all simple: think age, race or gender and other traditional targeting. The results from the test were mixed together with various polls, voter records and online activity to create personality models for voters. This is where and when bad things happened: it looks like the company collected a lot of information by breaking Facebook’s rules. To start with, an outside researcher affiliated with Cambridge University, Kogan, developed an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ for the company that required users to sign in using their Facebook accounts. At that time, Facebook’s rules allowed the app to take information from these users, as well as their friends — think education, location, liked pages and groups, relationship statuses and work information. At one point, Kogan was allowed to gather all this data, but strictly for academic purposes, and he promised to use it for research. He was definitely not allowed to pass this data to a third party. But it happened.