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Cambridge Analytica Part I: What Really Happened

Story 1 in a 4-part series, UCOMM looks to help you understand what happened and why you should care

Brian Young's picture
Mar 21, 2018

The social media world has been in a panic over the last week after it came to light that 50 million people’s Facebook data was sold to the Trump campaign to use during the 2016 election. Since UCOMM is engaged in doing market research, digital advertising and social network outreach for our many clients in the union movement, over the next four days, we will let you know what really happened, its impact on Facebook and other social media sites and what changes we could see in the coming months and years to regulate the internet. The story of the tactics that Cambridge Analytica used is worth the time in understanding so you don't fall victim to false advertising and misinformation by the far right.

So how did the Trump campaign and their consultants at Cambridge Analytica get this data from 50 million Facebook users? The story begins back in 2014. Academic Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research created an app called "thisisyourdigitallife." Through the app, users were paid to take a psychological test and then the app collected the data. Before someone used the app, they were asked if they would authorize thisisyourdigitallife to access their Facebook page as well as their list of friends. Like many people on the internet, most people just approved it and authorized them to use it. Even though only a few hundred thousand people actually used the app, those people allowed the app to collect data on 50 million of their friends. It took nearly a year before Facebook figured out what the app was doing. Thisisyourdigitallife was finally banned by Facebook in 2015, at which time Facebook alleges that they were told by Kogan that all of the data had been destroyed. It's important to note, or ask the question, what was Aleksandr Kogan's motive? Was he malicious? Did he think he was doing something good for society, or bad?

Kogan’s company, Global Science Research (GSR), was paid $800,000 by Cambridge Analytica in June of 2014 to build the app and to harvest the users' data. Cambridge Analytica is an online marketing company that was created by the right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer and whose Vice President was Steve Bannon, who would leave the company in 2016 to run the Trump campaign. The firm began their work as early as 2015 for Ted Cruz and Ben Carson in the United States and the Brexit “Leave” campaign in the United Kingdom before joining the Trump campaign in 2016. Anybody who is somebody can attest that there was little if any good, done by the campaigns that Kogan's app empowered.

With all of this data, Cambridge was able to build a psychographic profile of every person that they targeted with an ad. As UCOMM Blog previously reported, online advertisers like UCOMM Media Group, are able to target ads to certain people based on information that Facebook or Google has collected. Some of these data points could be age, race, gender, employment and pages that you like or websites that you visit. This allows advertisers to market products directly to you and is why after you look at an item on Amazon, you start seeing ads for that product on Facebook and Google. However, what Cambridge did was take the data that they had and amplified it. Instead of just a few data points that a normal advertiser would use, company CEO Alexander Nix claimed that Cambridge had 4-5 thousand data points on every American adult. It might sound like a futuristic science fiction novel, but this is how the Trump campaign brought out Middle-America's fear and awoke a movement of hate that put a racist in the White House.

With all of this data and a psychological profile of Facebook users, Cambridge was able to change the way that they advertised for Trump. Instead of creating an advertising universe based on demographics, they created it using behavioral microtargeting. This change in microtargeting allowed them to individualize their universe, meaning that they didn’t have to assume all middle-class white women would vote in a similar way. Instead, they could create a universe that went across demographic lines. For example, they could create a universe that would be moved to vote for Trump by an ad that showed the dangers of undocumented workers coming into the United States. In other words, they didn’t have to waste money on people who the ads wouldn’t effect. If your psychological profile indicated that you were afraid of undocumented immigrants, you were later served with ads showing the darkest stories of immigrants committing crimes, regardless of whether your demographic info indicated you would support Trump. This fueled their fear and blind loyalty to Trump's divisive rhetoric.

One has to ask, did the Russian’s have anything to do with this? While Cambridge does have ties to Russian companies and Kogan worked at St. Petersburg State University, it is unclear whether the Russian ad campaign on behalf of Trump utilized this data. In the past few days, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested data from the company to see if there is a link between the Russian social media campaign on behalf of Trump and this data. What we do know is that in a special report by the UK’s Channel 4, executives at Cambridge were caught on tape bragging about selling the data to other elected officials and using other nefarious tactics to use as blackmail against candidates. This fact should concern you, and it concerns all of us at UCOMM because when we serve ads, it’s to promote progress or defend collective bargaining rights. This abuse of talent and power by Kogan and Cambridge can, and most likely will, prevent us from using similar tactics for the greater good.

Click here for Part 2 of this story where we take a deeper look into who funded this data collection and how they pulled it off in secret.

Kris LaGrange directed this series and contributed to this piece.

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