Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica
Data miningdata analysis
Founded 2013
Headquarters London, England, United Kingdom
Key people
Alexander Nix (CEO)[1]
Robert Mercer

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a privately held company that combines data mining and data analysiswith strategic communication for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company SCL Group to participate in American politics.[2] In 2014, CA was involved in 44 U.S. political races.[3] The company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes.[2][4] The firm maintains offices in New York CityWashington, D.C., and London.[5]

In 2015 it became known as the data analysis company working initially for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.[4] In 2016, after Cruz’s campaign had faltered, CA worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign,[6] and on the Leave.EU-campaign for the United Kingdom‘s withdrawal from the European Union. CA’s role and impact on those campaigns has been disputed and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries.[7][8][9]

Background and methods

SCL Group calls itself a “global election management agency”[10] known for involvement “in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting”.[4] SCL’s involvement in the political world has been primarily in the developing world where it has been used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. Slate writer Sharon Weinberger compared one of SCL’s hypothetical test scenarios to fomenting a coup.[4]

According to the Swiss “Das Magazin” the methods of data analysis of CA are to a large degree based on the academic work of Michal Kosinski. In 2008 Kosinski had joined the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University where he then developed with his coworkers a profiling system using general online data, Facebook-likes, and smartphone data.[11] He showed that with a limited number of “likes” people can be analyzed better than friends or relatives can do and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people.[11]

When SCL Elections formed CA in 2013 it hired researchers from Cambridge University, hence the name.[12] CA collects data on voters using sources such as demographicsconsumer behaviorinternet activity, and other public and private sources. According to The Guardian, CA is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge.[12] Another source of information is the “Cruz Crew” mobile app that tracks physical movements and contacts and invades personal data more than any other app of presidential candidates.[13]

“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual … So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.”

— Alexander Nix (Chief Executive, Cambridge Analytica), October 2016.[1]

The company claims to use “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company uses the OCEAN scale of personality traits.[3][5] Using what it calls “behavioral microtargeting” the company indicates that it can predict “needs” of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.” According to Sasha Issenberg, CA indicates that it can tell things about an individual he might not even know about himself.[2] [14]

CA derives much of its personality data on online surveys which it conducts on an ongoing basis. For each political client, the firm narrows voter segments from 32 different personality styles it attributes to every adult in the U.S. The personality data informs the tone of the language used in ad messages or voter contact scripts, while additional data is used to determine voters’ stances on particular issues.[15]

The data gets updated with monthly surveys, asking about political preferences and how people get the information they use to make decisions. It also covers consumer topics about different brands and preferred products, building up an image of how someone shops as much as how they vote.[16]


United States

2016 presidential election

CA’s involvement in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries became known in July 2015.[4] As of December 2015 CA claimed to have collected up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans.[5] At that time Robert Mercer was a major supporter of Ted Cruz.[2][17] The Mercer family funded CA directly and indirectly through several super-PACs as well as through payments via Cruz’s campaign.[12]

Ted Cruz became an early major client of CA in the 2016 presidential campaign. Just prior to the Iowa caucuses, the Cruz campaign had spent $3M for CA’s services,[18] with additional money coming from allied Super-PACs.[18] After Cruz’s win at the Iowa caucus CA was credited with having been able to identify and motivate potential voters.[19][20] Ultimately the Cruz campaign spent $5.8 million on work by CA.[21]

Ben Carson was a second client of CA; his campaign had paid $220,000 for “data management” and “web service” as reported in October 2015.[3]Marco Rubio’s campaign was supported by Optimus Consulting.[22] Meanwhile, the third competitor, Governor John Kasich, was supported by rivaling firm Applecart.[23]

After Cruz dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016, Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah started to support Trump.[24] In August it became known that CA followed their allegiance and worked for Trump’s presidential campaign.[21][24] Trump’s campaign also worked with digital firm Giles Parscale.[21] In September, the Trump campaign spent $5 million to purchase television advertising.[25]The Trump campaign spent less than $1 million in data work.[26]

In 2016, the company said that it had not used psychographics in the Trump presidential campaign.[27]

The head of Cambridge Analytica said he asked the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, for help finding Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails.[28][29]

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