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Cambridge Analytica Part II: How They Did It

Story 2 in a 4-part series, UCOMM looks to help you understand how they did it and why you should be concerned

Brian Young's picture
Mar 22, 2018

In Part I of our four-part series UCOMM looked at what happened with an overview of the story, today we will look at how they got this information, how they used it, and who was funding their evil efforts.

UCOMM informed you how a Russian psychologist used thisisyourdigitallife to mine data from Facebook users; but how did this simple data collection app give him access to 50 million people? This question is at the crux of potential investigations that could be held by the US Congress and the British Parliament.  Before 2015, when you downloaded an app that used Facebook, the company allowed the app to access your entire list of friends on Facebook. By giving this access to a private group, the psychologist Aleksandr Kogan and CA was able to mine data not only from the people who used the app but all of their friends as well. In this case, about 320,000 people took the survey. Each of the people became a “seeder” allowing Kogan to collect data from about 160 other people’s profiles.

This effort isn’t new, with cases of companies and even the United State government canvassing the interest facebook user’s as early as 2008, but it was never used in elections. That is until Christopher Wylie, a young Canadian who had learned data analytics on the Obama campaign and who exposed CA’s work, figured out that you could use the data to create a targeting model for voters. He first wanted to see why the Liberal Democrats were having so much trouble winning elections in Great Britain. After pouring over the data, Wylie found that some common themes that unite Lib-Dems that could be targeted in their upcoming campaign. While the party didn’t want to listen, Alexander Nix, Steve Bannon and the SCL Group (CA’s parent company) sure did. They gave him carte blanche to experiment with his targeting models and would later introduce Wylie and their targeting plan to the right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, who was funding the project. Mercer had made billions in artificial intelligence and electronic trading, so the ideas Wylie had made sense to him. With Mercer’s, CA reached out to Kogen to contract him to begin collecting data. In just a matter of weeks, he had collected millions of peoples data.

People don’t realize how much information they share actually share on Facebook. Through your statuses, pages that you like, photos, geo locations and more - Facebook is perhaps the largest database of personal information in the world. In a 2014 speech in Russia, Kogan said:

"The level of what can be predicted about you based on what you like on Facebook is higher than what your wife would say about you, what your parents or friends can say about you. Even if we take your 10 best friends and they all give a description of who you are as a person and we combine it all together – this analysis method is still better. Your Facebook knows more about you than any other person in your life."

However, most advertisers don’t have access to 1% of this data. Facebook and other ad servers like Google and Twitter, limit the number of data points that you can use to micro-target an ad. For example, here at UCOMM, we will target ads to people who like a union page like the IBEW or AFL-CIO, we target people based on their publicly available political preference, or we can target someone based on their gender, age and race. Again we do this to encourage progress and promote causes that benefit the greater good, Steve Bannon and the Trump Camp had much different intentions using strategies that are often compared to Nazi Germany and totalitarian dictatorships.

Kogan was paid $1 million to collect this data and CA and their parent company SCL Group employed a team of shadowy former intelligence officers who were experts in psy-ops. This included the shamed Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s National Security Advisor. With the data that Kogan had collected, these experts were able to create a psychological profile of the Trump voter and create messaging that would best encourage these voters to support Trump. Many of these officials were experts in counter-insurgency and propaganda efforts in battlefields around the world, including Steve Tatham the former commander of the British Royal Navy, who literally wrote the book on using psy-ops to defeat an insurgency. The fact that these tactics worked, and still work, should scare every American. With Trump’s large margins of victory in states with low national education rankings, psy-ops usage in democratic elections could, and probably will, change the political game forever. The question is, can psy-ops be used for the greater good, or can it be only used to divide and destroy. Divisiveness and placing blame is a product American’s have accepted as normal coming out of Trump’s White House.

CA crafted Trump’s messaging from Kogan’s data including the famous Crooked Hillary theme. According to a lawsuit filed by the Campaign Legal Center, CA embedded at least 10 data analysts in the campaign. At the same time, CA was also working for the Pro-Trump PAC Make America Number 1. Through this PAC, CA used the psychological profiles to target voters and convert them into Trump supporters. That included creating specific messaging such as the Crooked Hillary theme. As Washington is in complete disarray, even with Trump’s historic low approval ratings - the way information about our social network and browsing habits is used to influence our decisions at the polls is dangerous. This fact should not be taken lightly or blown off as coincidence.

Click here for Part III of this story tomorrow when we look at how this data mining, combined with Russia’s use of Facebook to influence the Presidential campaign could change the way that we use Facebook forever.

Kris LaGrange directed this series and contributed to this piece.

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