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Written By-Laza Florina
On March 16th, the New York Times and the Guardian published for the first time the elaborate scheme that stood behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Those newly discovered pieces of information demonstrate how they played with the psychology of an entire population in the context of the democratic process and, moreover, how conspiracy theories became weapons of mass manipulation.
Experts believe that a data mining and political strategy firm hired by the Trump’s campaign, called Cambridge Analytica, used illegal methods to target individuals and gain an unfair advantage during the presidential campaign. To be more precise, they succeeded in reaching complete access to personal information of at least 50 million user Facebook profiles. In the aftermath of the revelations, American Senators called for Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to testify before Congress and explain the social media manipulation in the 2016 election. The real issue was that Facebook made it easy for developers to get access to your data, your friend’s data and to share it. Moreover, they have never informed the public that their data had been improperly used.
When Facebook opened its platform for developers in 2007 it, also, allowed outside apps to access all kinds of user data. For example, you may have noticed that whenever you are using an app, they ask you to sign in through Facebook. At the time, Facebook did not just allowed access to the person who used or joined the app, but, also, it would then go into their entire friends’ network and pull out all the friends data as well, in order to help advertisers better understand your preferences. So, if you joined the app, they won’t just see your FB profile, they will see all the Facebook profiles of all the people you are friends with. You can only imagine how dangerous this kind of information can become in the hands of somebody who’s trying to manipulate you politically. They will, of course, be able to exploit your vulnerabilities and send you customized messages that can drive you to change your perspective of reality.
In 2013, back when the data was still available, a University employee, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, accessed the information of 50 million Facebook users, under the false claim of academic research, later giving away all the information to Cambridge Analytica. However, he maintains that everything he did was legal and that he had a close working relationship with Facebook, which has granted him special permission for his app “through your digital life”. In response, Facebook denies that the data transfer was a breach and is conducting its own investigations, but considering the scale of the problem, this may be a job that requires decades of research and inquiries.
But how was all this possible? The public was finally able to get a hold of those astronomic revelations through a 29-years-old whistleblower who had previously worked for the firm. His name is Christopher Wylie and he was the research director for the company that he later described as being “a full service propaganda machine”.
He explains the philosophy that stood behind the “grossly unethical experiment” in the following words: “if you want to change politics, you have to change first the culture, because politics flows from culture and so, if you want to change the culture, you first have to understand the units of culture and this means you need understand the people”. In conclusion, you don’t target a person as a voter, but the psychological profile of each voter in a particular context. But for this new style of political campaigning, you need appropriate weapons, more exactly, “cultural weapons”.
He claims that in a period of two or three months, 50 to 60 million profiles were successfully collected, and we are talking about everything that could be found on a Facebook profile: status updates, likes and in some cases, even private messages. The company spent millions of dollars harvesting tens of millions of Facebook profiles and those profiles were used as the foundation for the firm’s algorithms. The company itself was founded on using Facebook data. The goal was to establish exactly what drives a person, what motivates them to change; they needed to know precisely what kind of message you would be more responsive to, including the forming of it, the tone, the topics, the contents, when you need to consume that and how many times is it necessary for a message to be transmitted in order for an individual to change his perspective.
All those pieces of information link to the main character of the story, an ex-computer engineer turned billionaire, called Robert Mercer, who is actually the man behind Donald Trump’s win. The plan started to take form as he began to express his conservative political ideas and wished for them to be imposed on the American citizens. He made massive donations through the Mercer Family Foundation to institutions such as The Heritage Foundation which is an anti-tax and economic regulation lobby institution, Media Research Group which is an institution fighting the media Left-wing Agenda, Government Accountability Institute which tracks government corruption and publishes books critical to Hillary Clinton, and the Hartford institute which defends climate change skeptics.
At this point in time, he knew he needed support from the media and the right political candidate to turn his aspirations and political views into reality. Back then, his ideas were a little too extreme for the mainstream media, so he decided to buy an online media outlet for 10 million dollars, called Breitbart News, and let his right-hand man, Steve Bannon, a man who deeply shares his political views, in charge.
In 2015, he began his plans by supporting Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, but after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in several Republican primaries, Mercer decided to embark on the presidential political journey alongside with the famous businessman and TV personality, Donald Trump. He took over his whole campaign, named Steve Bannon the director of it, and created a pro-Trump action committee called “Make America No.1”.
In addition, they decided to reach a private British behavioral research and strategic communication company, called SCL Group for political counseling. The company has 4 branches: one for the military, another for the commercial segment, an analytical branch, and, of course, an election branch. But mainly because American laws prohibit external influences during the domestic democratic process, the company created a new subsidiary, called Cambridge Analytica, so to present themselves as an English company newly arrived in the US. “SCL elections”, which was a part of the SCL Group, became a minority shareholder at Cambridge Analytica, while the majority shareholder was Robert Mercer who founded the company with millions of dollars and once again chose Steve Bannon to be the head of it. They created the appearance of an independent entity estranged from SCL Group, but in reality, the operations were conducted by SCL Elections.
To explain the company services with accuracy, we can analyze the official explanation of their practices written on their website. They claim to combine geographic and demographic information with up to 5000 data points of national, political, consumer and lifestyle behavior for every voter in the US, then they add a unique extra-layer of data about personality, decision making, and motivation. This creates an unparalleled rich and detailed view of voters in the issues they care about, so you know exactly who to target and with exactly what type of messaging. This is called “behavioral micro targeting”. Their team of data scientists, psychologists, and campaign experts work together to determine which individual voters you need to win over in order to secure the victory.
Since its arrival on US soil, the firm has started to compile millions of pieces of data on American voters without their knowledge or consent. They bought data from credit card companies, banks, and healthcare providers, as well as from Web giants such as Facebook, Google or Twitter. This practice is completely legal, although none of these companies want to address the issue. In the end, Cambridge Analytica ended up with four to five thousand pieces of information for each of the 230 million adults in the USA. Then the company compares the data with the results from various psychological tests run on the public on unharmful matters. This technique already existed and is the consequence of psychometric studies. So, scientists discovered that instead of using direct questions, you can use digital footprints to establish the psychological response to different situations. They are called OCEAN tests and they measure personality based on 5 criteria:
This tests can be completed online and have titles such as “what superhero are you?” or “which Harry Potter character are you?” and I am sure at some point you have completed a test like this and probably enjoyed it without even knowing that your responses may compose an elaborate psychological profile for some research company.
Moreover, experts say you can turn Facebook likes into an accurate prediction of your political views, personality, intelligence, happiness, sexual orientation, and even if your parents are divorced. This study is nothing the world had ever seen. Apparently, with 10 likes, the algorithm knows you better than your colleagues, with 100 likes the algorithm knows your better than your family and with 230 likes, the algorithm knows you better than your love partner.
Computers combine those pieces of personal information with psychological tests in order to predict human behavior.
So, it seems that thanks to Cambridge Analytica’s knowledge of the electorate, Trump’s campaign has the necessary “cultural weapons” for creating a successful and highly devised political targeted strategy based on the particularities of the US electorate system. In the USA, the president is not elected directly by the people, but by the Electoral College appointed in each of the 50 states and not all states have the same number of electors which makes some states more important than others. Trump’s advisers suspected that they will not win the national vote (which later proved to be true), so they decided to concentrate in some key states. And everyone was surprised when Donald Trump turned over to 3 states that are considered deeply democratic: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Using the data they had on the electorate, they were able to define 32 types of personalities throughout the countries. The firm identified the profile of a worried or neurotic person and therefore predisposed to Donald Trump’s messages in exactly those 3 primarily democratic countries (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania). But how exactly they reached out those people? They used a little known Facebook feature named “dark posts” which are basically individualized messages visible only for the individual to whom they are intended. This means that candidates can target individuals on Facebook with negative messages against the other candidate without the journalists being aware of it because those messages will not appear publicly.
But how does it work exactly? I chose to take an example from a documentary on this matter which I found very explanatory. Let’s think about an ordinary individual that is targeted and analyzed with the firm’s algorithms. Thanks to Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s campaign knows he is in favor of carrying firearms, so they will create a customized message just for him. For example, “did you know that Hillary Clinton wants to take your gun off?” and he will receive the message with a photo of Hillary Clinton next to a gun and a title as such at a specific time according to his specific habits and digital footprints. No one, but him will see the targeted add and it will disappear a few hours later. You have no idea who saw what and who’s being told what, the only one that knows is the individual specifically targeted, and interesting enough, technically Facebook knows it, too. Those dark posts are saved on the Facebook server, but they are not going to give up the data.
Donald Trump is not the first presidential candidate to use this kind of strategy. For example, Obama’s team had created a smartphone app during the 2012 elections, called Obama for America, but the differences are actually huge. They told the voters exactly what they were doing and acted with transparency, while Cambridge Analytica obtained the data in total violation of the Facebook rules and did not inform the public about the implications of the psychometric methods used, and that their data will eventually be used for political advertising targeting.
However, Cambridge Analytica’s role in several campaigns is right now the subject of ongoing criminal investigations, primarily in the US and in the UK. And the last is for their implication in the Leave EU-campaign for the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership. On 1 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, filed for insolvency proceedings and closed operations.
There is no doubt, Donald Trump election was not a fair game. Never has a candidate relied so much on fake news and secret voter targeting.