Last week, Facebook had £58bn of shares wiped after allegations involving a third party harvesting and sharing millions of user’s personal data.
The scandal, uncovered by the investigative team at Channel 4, dealt a huge blow to Facebook, but also shined light on a shady entity known as Cambridge Analytica.
Who are Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a UK-based data science and communications consultancy with global reach in the political and commercial sectors.
Using big data, psychographic analysis and behavioural microtargeting, Cambridge Analytica helps political campaigners influence voters to win elections.
In their own words (taken from their website).
CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.
With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.
Our team of PhD data scientists, expert researchers, and seasoned political operatives have produced decisive results for campaigns and initiatives throughout the world. In the US, CA Political has successfully worked on projects for all three branches of government and at local, state, and national levels.
Their website continues to describe how their clients experience an ‘end-to-end campaign service’ which includes polling data, predictive analytics, list building, event promotion, real-time reporting and TV and digital ad placement.
Cambridge Analytica also boasts of having sophisticated psychological profiles of voters, along with the ability to deliver tailored messages to segmented audiences.
A synthesis of these techniques is said to have played a significant role during the 2016 U.S. elections, with the Trump campaign reportedly paying $6m to Cambridge Analytica in the build-up to the election.
In an article from The Guardian, the publisher claims to have got its hands on a leaked internal company document which they call ‘Cambridge Analytica’s blueprint for Trump victory’.
The document illustrates some of the techniques involved in the hyper-targeted digital marketing strategy behind the Trump campaign.
A former Cambridge Analytica contractor now turned whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, claimed that the company had harvested data from 50 million Facebook profiles belonging to US voters.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
The original source of the data is said to be from Dr Aleksandr Kogan, an academic in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Kogan is said to have built an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, which asked hundreds of thousands of users to take a personality test. In order to do so, users were asked the permit the app to access data from their Facebook profiles.
This apparently gave researchers two sets of data: one showing their answers to the personality quiz, and the other showing data on their user behaviour on Facebook.
Amalgamating these two data points created a near complete psychological profile of the users who took the test, and would allow marketing and political advertisers to target Facebook users based on things they care about.
Technically, this strategy of data collection didn’t break Facebook’s rules. However, the accusation that Dr Kogan shared the data they had accumulated with Cambridge Analytica would amount to a violation of Facebook’s terms of service, if proven to be true.
Cambridge Analytica is also facing questions regarding a potential breach of electoral law in the UK during the Brexit vote, following reports from a whistleblower that the Vote Leave campaign channelled money through another campaign to a firm linked to Cambridge Analytica.
But the smoking gun for Cambridge Analytica came in the Channel 4 undercover documentary, where CEO Alexander Nix was said to describe examples of how the firm uses ‘underhand tactics’ such as ‘smear campaigns and honey traps’ to swing elections in favour of their clients. Nix has since been suspended by the company, pending a full independent investigation.
If nothing else, the case of Cambridge Analytica proves that we are in a new age of data-driven marketing. For NGOs, corporations, and governments that have deep enough pockets, it appears that influencing the masses to act with the right combination of big data, psychographic mapping and behavioural targeting is now easier than ever before.
It will be interesting what to see what revelations come next.