Cambridge Analytica relies upon ‘psychographic’ techniques that measure the Big Five personality traits borrowed from social psychology: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
In the US, Cambridge Analytica developed psychological profiles of millions of Americans by hiring a company called Global Science Research (GSR) to plant free personality quizzes. Users were lured by the prospect of obtaining free personality scores, while Cambridge Analytica collected data – and access to users’ Facebook profiles. Last week, The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica collected data from more than 300,000 Facebook users in this way. By agreeing to the terms and conditions of the app, those users also agreed to grant GSR (and by extension, Cambridge Analytica) access to the profiles of their Facebook ‘friends’ – totalling approximately 50 million people.
Psychographics uses algorithms to scour voters’ Facebook ‘likes’, retweets and other social media data which are aggregated with commercially available information: land registries, automotive data, shopping preferences, club memberships, magazine subscriptions, and religious affiliation. When combined with public records, electoral rolls, and additional information purchased from data brokers such as Acxiom and Experian, Cambridge Analytica has raw material for shaping personality profiles. Digital footprints can be transformed into real people. This is the essence of psychographics: Using software algorithms to scour individual voters’ Facebook ‘likes’, retweets and other bits of data gleaned from social media and then combine them with commercially available personal information. Data mining is relatively easy in the US, since it has relatively weak privacy laws compared to South Korea, Singapore, and many EU countries.
In a 2016 presentation, Nix described how such information might be used to influence voter opinions on gun ownership and gun rights. Individual people can be addressed differently according to their personality profiles: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience, the threat of a burglary – and the insurance policy of a gun... Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience: people who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”
Despite the ominous sounding nature of psychographics, it is not at all clear that Cambridge Analytica played a decisive role in the 2016 US presidential election. Some charge that the company and its former CEO Alexander Nix, exaggerated Cambridge Analytica’s effect on the election’s outcome. In February 2017, investigative journalist Kendall Taggart wrote an exposé claiming that more than a dozen former employees of Cambridge Analytica, Trump campaign staffers, and executives at Republican consulting firms denied that psychographics was used at all by the Trump campaign. Taggart concluded: “Rather than a sinister breakthrough in political technology, the Cambridge Analytica story appears to be part of the traditional contest among consultants on a winning political campaign to get their share of the credit–and win future clients.” Not a single critic was willing to be identified in the report, apparently fearing retaliation from Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who is also an investor in the firm.
By no means has Cambridge Analytica limited its work to the US. In fact, it has conducted ‘influence operations’ in several countries around the world.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections’.