Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy data firm that helped elect Donald Trump, specializes in “psychographic” profiling, which it sells as a sophisticated way to digitally manipulate huge numbers of people on behalf of its clients. But apparently, when you’re trying to win a campaign, prostitutes, bribes and spies work pretty well too.
On Monday, Britain’s Channel 4 News ran an explosive exposé of the embattled company. Going undercover as a potential client, its reporter filmed Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, talking about entrapping his clients’ opponents by sending “very beautiful” Ukranian sex workers to their homes. He spoke of offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them and putting the footage online, of employing fake IDs and bogus websites. Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, described how the company “put information into the bloodstream of the internet” and then watched it spread.
This story came two days after a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission. “The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on Trump’s campaign in 2016,” The Times wrote.
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After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.
Created in 2013, Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of SCL Group, a British company that specialized in disinformation campaigns in the developing world. It’s mostly owned by the Mercer family, billionaire right-wing donors and strong Trump supporters. Before becoming the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Steve Bannon was Cambridge Analytica’s vice president. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, also served as an adviser to the company.
Cambridge Analytica shared office space with Trump’s San Antonio-based digital operation, and took substantial credit for its success. “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” Nix said in a Nov. 9, 2016, news release.
It has long been hard to judge how well psychographic profiling actually works. Many consider Cambridge Analytica overrated. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that former employees said “that despite its sales pitch and public statements, it never provided any proof that the technique was effective or that the company had the ability to execute it on a large scale.” Those who feared that Cambridge Analytica was conducting information warfare on the American people may have been giving the company’s self-serving propaganda too much credence.
But whether or not Cambridge Analytica’s methodology works, the fact that the Trump campaign had a crew of high-tech dirty tricksters on its payroll is significant. We already know that Cambridge Analytica reached out to Julian Assange about finding and disseminating Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. We know that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has asked the company to turn over documents related to the Trump campaign. Channel Four News plans to air additional undercover footage about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Trump campaign on Tuesday.
At a minimum, we’ve learned that the Trump campaign’s vaunted social media program was built on deception. Shortly after the 2016 election, Forbes ran an article crediting Jared Kushner for his father-in-law’s shocking triumph. Thanks to digital tools, it said, the traditional presidential campaign was dead, “and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.”
For those who knew something of Kushner’s pre-election career, this portrait of him as some sort of analytics genius was befuddling. The small, gossipy New York newspaper he’d owned, The New York Observer, didn’t even have a particularly good website. “He wasn’t tech-savvy at all,” Elizabeth Spiers, the paper’s former editor-in-chief, told me.
Cambridge Analytica’s corruption helps provide the missing piece in this story. If the Trump campaign had a social media advantage, one reason is that it hired a company that mined vast amounts of illicitly obtained data.
There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He, and those around him, don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.