Cambridge Analytica

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This is your brain on psychographics a ball-and-stick model
Oh no, they're talking about
Icon politics.svg
As usual
Country sections
United States politics British politics Canadian politics Chinese politics French politics Indian politics Iranian politics Israeli politics Japanese politics South Korean politics
This was a criminal enterprise which clearly wanted to subvert the will of the people — through manipulation, through propaganda. There must be criminal culpability.
—Norman Magaya, General Secretary of the Kenyan National Super Alliance[1]
In Hacking The Electorate,[2] I laid out the rationale (with data) about the severe limits of microtargeting in campaigns. Post 2016/ Post Cambridge Analytica update: No update required. Every claim about psychographics etc made by or about the firm is BS.
—Eitan Hersh, Tufts University political scientist[3]

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was a UK data-mining company that attempts to use "psychographics"[note 1] to sway voters based on analysis of big data, social media, and pushing propaganda back at the potential voters via "microtargeting". Basically, CA evolved to convince people to vote against their own self-interest in support of ultra-conservative causes. It was founded by Robert MercerWikipedia and Steve Bannon in 2013.[5] Cambridge Analytica was influential both in the 2016 Brexit referendum and in supporting Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[6]

CA was also associated with Frontier Services Group (whose CEO is Erik Prince[7]), which provides security to Chinese businesses in Africa.[8] There were also some apparent links to Peter Thiel (then a Facebook board member and right-wing billionaire), including via his Palantir Technologies.[9][10][11] Thiel also donated $1 million to a super PAC that in turn gave $231,352 to Cambridge Analytica.[12]

CA supported Ted Cruz's and Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaigns simultaneously (a conflict of interest) and Thom Tillis's North Carolina Senate campaign.[13][14] It has also supported "Make America Number 1" PAC and the "John Bolton PAC".[13] CA has also claimed involvement with over 200 elections in several countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Czechia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa, St. Kitts & Nevis, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.[15][16]


Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mindfuck tool
—Christopher Wylie, CA whisteblower and mindfuck tool creator[17]
I think Cambridge Analytica is a better marketing company than a targeting company.
—Tom Dobber, a doctoral candidate studying political microtargeting at the University of Amsterdam[18]
He’s an adman bigging up his data-science firm. There are lots of them.
—Robert Shrimsley on CA CEO Alexander Nix[19]

The actual efficacy of CA's product is somewhat unclear due to company secrecy, but the underlying method of psychographics to microtarget voters has been roundly criticized by political scientists as being ineffective. One potential and several former clients have criticized CA's product as being not worth the cost.

A meta-analysis of the effect of US political campaigns found that "the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero."[20][21] A study of the influence of Facebook on 2010 US Congressional elections, conducted in conjunction with Facebook, found that social messages significantly influenced voter turnout, and "the messages not only influenced the users who received them but also the users' friends, and friends of friends".[22] A similar study on the 2012 Presidential Election found less clear evidence of increased turnout, consistent with people having stronger preconceived opinions being less easily swayed.[23] Even though turnout certainly could affect the result in a close election, this research does not match the use of personalised, targetted messages by Cambridge Analytica.

Psychographics and microtargeting might be effective for marketing products, but are unlikely to be effective for swaying voters.[18] This is because of both the problems inherent in personality tests such as those used in psychographics, and the ineffectiveness of microtargeting for political purposes.[18]

Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump's 2016 campaign managers, rejected CA's proposals three times, and members of both the Cruz and Carson campaigns said that CA's work was not worth the cost.[24] On the other hand, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, bragged about the value of the $5.9 million that they paid to CA.[24]


In 2018, CA was alleged to have committed illegal acts before and during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, including with Facebook data.[25] The old-school allegations of illegal acts include bribes and use of prostitutes to entrap politicians.[25] CA's CEO, Alexander Nix, was suspended shortly after the release of Channel 4's secret recording of his interviews during a sting operation.[26] Ironically, Nix was secretly recorded by Channel 4 admitting that CA secretly recorded entrapping politicians committing illegal acts (bribery and prostitution).[25][27]

In 2014, CA was advised not to use employees who were neither US citizens nor permanent residents of the US on US election campaigns in any capacity because it would be a violation of several laws.[28] Despite this warning, at least three former CA staff members revealed that only foreign nationals were embedded into US election campaigns.[29][30] If shown to be true, that would also mean that whoever supervised the embedded employees would have also committed crimes, regardless of the supervisors' nationalities[30] (e.g., potentially Bannon and Nix). Special counsel Robert Mueller requested that CA turn over documents relating to its work with the Trump campaign in 2017,[31] indicating that non-US CA employees might be under investigation for breaking election law.

Goodbye, hello[edit]

In May 2018, following news of the scandal and loss of revenue, CA declared bankruptcy and began employee layoffs.[32] Following the shutdown of CA, many of the same principals (e.g., two of the Mercers) are running a company called Emerdata in the same building that housed CA.[33][34]

See also[edit]


  1. "a qualitative methodology used to describe consumers on psychological attributes"[4]


  1. Cambridge Analytica's Kenya election role 'must be investigated' (20 March 2018) BBC.
  2. Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters by Eitan Hersh (2015) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1107501164.
  3. In Hacking The Electorate, I laid out the rationale (with data) about the severe limits of microtargeting in campaigns. Post 2016/ Post Cambridge Analytica update: No update required. Every claim about psychographics etc made by or about the firm is BS. by Eitan Hersh (11:37 PM - 18 Mar 2018) Twitter.
  4. Psychographics: A Critical Review by William D. Wells (1975) Journal of Marketing Research 12:196–213. doi:10.2307/3150443.
  5. How Cambridge Analytica broke into the U.S. political market through Mercer-allied conservative groups by Michelle Ye Hee Lee & Craig Timberg (March 23, 2018 at 7:50 PM) The Washington Post.
  6. Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down", Motherboard via Vice (1/28/17 at 6:15am).
  7. Our Team Frontier Services Group
  8. The Latest: Cambridge Analytica links to Blackwater founder (March 21 at 7:15 AM) Associated Press via The Washington Post.
  9. Trudy Ring (March 28 2018). "Here's How Peter Thiel Is Connected to the Facebook Ploy to Elect Trump". Advocate.
  10. Jim Edwards (March 28, 2018). "Emails link Peter Thiel's Palantir and Eric Schmidt's daughter to Facebook's Cambridge Analytica fiasco". Business Insider.
  11. Natasha Lomas (March 28, 2018). "Palantir confirms a staff link with Cambridge Analytica". TechCrunch.
  12. Jack Morse (March 22, 2018). "Facebook board member Peter Thiel helped fund Cambridge Analytica's work". Mashable.
  13. 13.0 13.1 CA Political Cambridge Analytica
  14. What Does the Billionaire Family Backing Donald Trump Really Want? The Mercers are enjoying more influence than ever with their candidate in the White House—but no one seems to know how they intend to use it. by Rosie Gray (Jan 27, 2017) The Atlantic.
  15. Case Studies Cambridge Analytica
  16. Cambridge Analytica says it worked for Uhuru Kenyatta (March 20 2018) Daily Nation (Kenya).
  17. 'I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool': meet the data war whistleblower by Carole Cadwalladr (18 Mar 2018 05.44 EDT) The Guardian.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook data abuse shouldn’t get credit for Trump by Angela Chen & Alessandra Potenza (Mar 20, 2018, 8:00am EDT) The Verge.
  19. Alexander Nix, a fake Bond villain obscuring the real mastermind: Cambridge Analytica's éminence grise is really just an adman bigging up his firm by Robert Shrimsley (March 22, 2018) Financial Times.
  20. The Minimal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments by Joshua Kalla & David E. Broockman (2018) American Political Science Review 112(1):148-166.
  21. Fake News and Bots May Be Worrisome, but Their Political Power Is Overblown: It's very hard to change people’s minds, especially when so many are already committed partisans. by Brendan Nyhan (Feb. 13, 2018) The New York Times.
  22. A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization, Robert M Bond et al, Nature. 2012 Sep 13; 489(7415): 10.1038/nature11421.
  23., Jason J Jones et al, PLOS One, April 26, 2017
  24. 24.0 24.1 Lewandowski: I turned down Cambridge Analytica three times when I ran Trump campaign by David Weigel (March 25, 2018 at 12:02 PM) The Washington Post.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Revealed: Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians (19 Mar 2018) Channel 4.
  26. Cambridge Analytica Boasted of Disappearing Emails in Campaigns by Nate Lanxon (March 20, 2018, 12:05 PM PDT; Corrected March 20, 2018, 1:39 PM PDT) Bloomberg.
  27. Cambridge Analytica's Alexander Nix: Bond villain, tech genius or hustler? by William Booth & Karla Adam (March 27 at 7:25 PM) The Washington Post.
  28. Participation in US Elections Confidential Memorandum to Rebekah Mercer, Steve Bannon, and Alexander Nix from Laurence Levy (July 22, 2014) Bracewell & Giuliani.
  29. Wylie: Foreigners worked for Cambridge Analytica on NC Senate campaign: A former Cambridge Analytica staffer says foreigners were embedded in U.S. campaigns and making decisions, despite a legal memo that advised otherwise. by Anna R. Schecter (Mar.23.2018 / 3:04 PM ET) MSNBC.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Politics: Former Cambridge Analytica workers say firm sent foreigners to advise U.S. campaigns by Craig Timberg & Tom Hamburger (March 25, 2018 at 9:28 PM) The Washington Post.
  31. Mueller Sought Emails of Trump Campaign Data Firm: Special counsel asked Cambridge Analytica to hand over employees' emails, in sign of investigators’ interest in campaign data operation by Rebecca Ballhaus (Updated Dec. 15, 2017 11:35 a.m. ET) The Wall Street Journal.
  32. Inside the final days of Cambridge Analytica: Failed rebrands, fleeing clients and Nerf basketball: Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy on Thursday, but its downfall started months ago with fleeing clients and failed rebrands. by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins (May.18.2018 / 6:19 AM ET / Updated May.18.2018 / 6:44 AM ET) NBC News.
  33. What Is Emerdata? As Cambridge Analytica Shuts, Directors Surface in New Firm by Jason Murdock (5/3/18 at 11:37 AM) Newsweek.
  34. See the Wikipedia article on Emerdata.