Earlier this month, Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica had been suspended from the social network site for improperly collecting data from millions of users. The notice was surprising because Facebook previously strenuously denied that the controversial British political communications firm had accessed information. This now is considered one of the largest data leaks in Facebook history.
The admission has sparked calls for investigations in both the United States and Britain. A proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed in California against both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Further, a British television news station released video in which the Cambridge CEO offered to entrap politicians with prostitutes and spread propaganda and fake news online to benefit clients.
Cambridge Analytica, which has claimed credit for tilting the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor, has a Long Island connection — one of its prime funders is Robert Mercer, hedge-fund manager and conservative donor who also helped bankroll Breitbart News. His daughter, Rebekah, reportedly urged Trump to make Stephen Bannon his campaign manager and hire Cambridge at a low point in the 2016 campaign.
Here’s a look at some of the key issues involved:
Q: What is Cambridge Analytica?
A: It’s a consulting firm that says it uses data-driven political and marketing campaigns based on data mining and data analysis of voter and consumer behavior. It’s a subsidiary of SCL Group (formerly Strategic Communication Laboratories), based in London. Cambridge is registered in the United States in Delaware.
It is funded by SCL and Robert Mercer, who reportedly poured $15 million into the company when it sought to get involved in U.S. political campaigns. Mercer, originally a computer scientist, made a fortune as an executive in Renaissance Technologies, a Setauket-based hedge fund that, somewhat like Cambridge Analytica, uses data-driven mathematical models. But instead of political campaigns, Renaissance used math to make billions of dollars in stock market trades.
Q: What is Cambridge’s marketing pitch?
A: On its website, it claims it “uses data to change audience behavior.” It says it has “redefined the relationship (between) data and campaigns.”
How so? In short, the company says it has “psychographic” profiles of some 230 million Americans that enable clients to develop very specific targeted ads to spur supporters to vote or discourage opponents from going to the polls.
“With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act . . . Together, with an unmatched understanding of your electorate, we will pinpoint the voters who will turn the tide in your favor, creatively engage with them, and drive them to the ballot box,” the company says.
It claims to have been influential not only in Trump’s win but also in “Brexit” — in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.
Q: How did it get so much information on U.S. voters?
A: That’s where Facebook comes in. A Cambridge (U.K.) University professor developed an app — “This is Your Digital Life” — that asked Facebook users to take a personality test. Not only did the app then harvest data from the quiz takers, but pretty much all their Facebook “friends.” All the data was then sold to Cambridge Analytica, according to Christopher Wylie, a former employee-turned-whistleblower.
According to The New York Times, the data firm ended up with information from 50 million Americans. And by data points, that means the company was able to use public and private social media activity to build profiles of users and map out how they felt about issues such as immigration, environment, gun laws, national debt and health care. In sum, the company claims to know exactly how you are thinking.
Q: What is the link to Trump?
A: Rebekah Mercer reportedly upbraided Trump about the state of his campaign in August 2016, persuaded him to add Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, and hire Cambridge Analytica. Some peg that as a turning point in the campaign. According to Bloomberg News, Trump’s digital team used Cambridge data and “isolated likely supporters” and “bombarded” them with Facebook ads to stir turnout in swing states.
Q: Is that unfair? Illegal?
A: Not necessarily so. But one reported aspect of special investigator Robert Mueller’s inquiry about Russian meddling in the election is Russian agents’ efforts to use Facebook platforms. Wylie has said in interviews that Cambridge met several times in 2014 and 2015 with Lukoil and that the Russian oil and gas company was interested in American voters’ data.
Q: What is the undercover video about?
A: British journalists, posing as potential political clients, recorded Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix promising to use an array of propaganda and blackmail techniques to crush would-be political opponents. Ukrainian hookers (“they are very beautiful. I find that works well”), bribes and sexual orientation rumors posted on the internet were just a few.
Later, the company suspended Nix but also issued a statement to media outlets saying its executives were humoring the “client” and adding: “The report is edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business.”
Q: What other investigations are underway?
A: In the UK late Friday, more than a dozen investigators from Britain’s information regulator seized evidence from Cambridge Analytica’s central London office, shortly after a High Court judge granted a warrant.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said Saturday it will “consider the evidence before deciding the next steps and coming to any conclusions.”
UK officials also want Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Parliament.
Here, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said they are launching a joint investigation about Facebook data. And in Washington, a group of senators have called for Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify about how they share users’ private information.
With Combined News Services