- May 2017
But does it actually work? One of the criticisms that has been levelled at my and others’ articles is that Cambridge Analytica’s “special sauce” has been oversold. Is what it is doing any different from any other political consultancy?
Reporters have overlooked that Robert Mercer's former employer, IBM Watson launched its Personality Insights service general use API on February 23, 2015 and was in beta before then. (It was available in 2014 and was called the User Modeling Service.) Jared Kushner's paper the Observer reported on it in July 2015. Thus, CA/SCL may have been using off-the-shelf technology. According to IBM, the service:
enables applications to derive insights from social media, enterprise data, or other digital communications. The service uses linguistic analytics to infer individuals' intrinsic personality characteristics, including Big Five, Needs, and Values, from digital communications such as email, text messages, tweets, and forum posts.
More recently another UK-based marketing firm, Unruly, has started using Watson's Personality Insights in conjunction with Facebook. It worthy of noting that the company is a News Corp firm, acquired in 2015. (See also this Press Release) The partnership was formed after the election, in December 2016:
This week, the UK-based firm announced its new Watson-assisted Unruly DNA tool. The central goal is to increase sales by trying to replicate “light buyers” of a brand’s products, the idea being that these kinds of customers already know the product line and haven’t reached their limit of purchases. This is the latest effort by the News Corp-owned firm to understand the hidden feelings of customers. In September, for instance, it unveiled a multilayered program to measure biometric responses of viewers to online video or TV ads.
IBM Watson's Personality Insights along with Apple Sauce are the APIs behind Data Selfie, a Chrome extension developed by Parsons students to increase awareness about tools used by the Adtech industry.
According to research by Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, low-information voters were an unusually large base of support for Trump. This audience was actively cultivated by Trump, who courted conspiracy theorists.
Arguments based on emotion, rather than policy, were likely the Trump strategy that few understood. As Newt Gingrich discussed in an interview with Alisyn Camerota on CNN:
The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. … No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened. … As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.
Key to the military doctrine that underlies SCL's methodology is an evaluation of the susceptibility of the audience to which the message is directed. As Steve Tatham writes, the purpose of Target Audience Analysis is to:
identify accessibility, vulnerability, and susceptibility to behavioural and attitudinal influence activity. (p.10)
Alexander Nix has acknowledged the military origins of the digital strategy, alluding to TAA in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg Politics. An older version of the SCL Elections website, archived here, the copy is explicit about one of its key offerings, "Behavioural Polling", a.k.a "Target Audience Analysis". As this job posting suggests, SCL does this kind of qualitative research as a first step to define the parameters of its digital strategy, as it seems to have done for the Ted Cruz campaign.
Overlooked in the discussion of the personality model used by Cambridge Analytica is that it can distinguish low-information voters, easily swayed by sentiment, also termed "neurotics".
Academic research has established a relationship between personality and political leanings—and has found that some types of personalities are more persuadable than others.
According to reporting by Sasha Issenberg for Bloomberg Politics in 2015, when Cambridge Analytica worked for Ted Cruz, it was already producing advertisements that would appeal to low-information voters and using its tech to get the message to the right people:
In another, aimed at neurotics, the diplomat was invisible—replaced by storm clouds, foreigners burning American flags, and an admonition to “vote like your life depends on it,” intoned by an disembodied narrator. “That’s obviously something that’s quite emotive,” says Nix, “as we’re really looking to drive an emotional reaction from an audience who would be inclined to give you one.”
Just as Unruly uses IBM Watson on behalf of News Corp properties today, its likely that CA/SCL used it to deliver Trump campaign's fear-based, xenophobic messaging. Although the exact nature of the means is unclear, the strategy worked. As post-hoc analyses have shown, the "race was about race". Ultimately, consumers of conspiracy websites such as that of Trump supporter, Alex Jones, are reliable customers).
At the moment, we don't know if the predictive capabilities of Watson Personality Insights can be effectively used to target low-information voters. Research is needed to find out.
American defence establishment
In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.
An earlier article in The Guardian reported that SCL has been a US defense contractor for some time:
In 2007, SCL paid $20,000 to a Washington lobbying company, Global Policy Partners, to promote it in the US. SCL won contracts with the Pentagon to conduct surveys in Iran and Yemen.
As Texfire recently examined, the SCL Group has just won a contract with the US Department of State to do target audience analysis of young men seeking to join ISIS.
On Twitter, IOTA-Global announced in August 2014 that Hayes Mahoney, former Senior Advisor on Syria at the US Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and former US Deputy Chief of Mission to Syria, was now a member of their team.
Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country.
According to research by Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, low-information voters were a large base of support for Trump. Paul-Olivier Dehaye has found evidence that suggests that SCL targeted this demographic. See also the following notes.
As Bloomberg Business has reported, the SCL Group specifically recommended stoking ethnic tensions in work for Latvian elections in 2006:
In Latvia, SCL said it ran a campaign in 2006 designed to stoke tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russian residents: “In essence, Russians were blamed for unemployment and other problems affecting the economy,” an SCL document said. Nix confirms the firm’s role, saying that its research found that such tensions would “influence voting behavior.”
In a 2013 bio, published in an Army War College publication, Tatham states that he is co-founder of the “Influence Advisory Panel” along with Major General Andrew Mackay CBE. The website of the initiative was registered in December 2011. The panel, which included academics and military personnel, was an initiative of the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, according to 2014 testimony given to the House of Lords.
However, the individuals who testified that day (according to this document), Tom Wein and Gaby van der Berg, weren't exactly telling the truth when they claimed that the "Behavioural Dynamics Institute is a private, not-for-profit, non-partisan institute." Nigel Oakes claims to have founded BDI in 1990, however, the BDI doesn't exist as a legal entity, only the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group--a for-profit corporation from 1991 until 2011, according to Company House records.
Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) is almost unique in the international contractor community in that it has a dedicated, and funded, behavioural research arm located in the prestigious home of British science and research, The Royal Institute.
BDI seems to have cultivated this appearance, going as far as to commission a video in the same style and by the same vendor as those produced for the RI.
Nigel Oakes, on his Linkedin Profile lists in his accomplishments section that he is a "Fellow" of the "Royal Institution" and lists his "License" number. However, the fellow program of the RI was actually a membership scheme, akin to being a member of a science museum. It was subsequently renamed in 2015.
Likewise, Tatham may have misrepresented IOTA-Global's pedigree to NATO. In a post on his Linkedin site, he claims:
The [BDI] methodology is the only one of its type in the world and has been verified and validated by the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the Sandia National Laboratories (USA) and the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL).
However, as reported by ItalyEurope24:
We were told that, “it is inconsistent with Agency policy for the company to claim their technology ‘has been verified and validated' by DARPA. Such language implies endorsement by the federal government, which we wouldn't extend to a commercial entity”.
Just to clarify, DSTL did not perform a 'verification and validation' (V&V) of the methodology. V&V is a specific term used in engineering and systems design, but is not germain to psychology or behavioural sciences. DSTL conducted "an impartial review of the method" whereby the method was employed for an applied TAA project. The review did not go into the depth required for 'verification', which in psychology and the behavioural sciences would require a series of replication studies, component analyses, and statistical modelling in order to establish the statistical "validity and reliability" of the method. Finally, it was not DSTL's role to comment on the 'success' of the project or any outcomes, we merely reviewed the method for its technical approach to see if it was fit for purpose given the specific requirements, and the factors influencing that requirement (e.g. time, cost, access).
Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”: a profoundly disquieting tactic.
The Observer has seen letters endorsing him from the UK Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and Nato.
Although the SCL Group may not have the endorsements that it claims, its methodology is nevertheless accepted. As the New York Times reported in March 2017:
“Their approach was seen as serious and focused,” said Mark Laity, chief of strategic communications at NATO’s military headquarters in Europe, who has taken part in NATO-affiliated conferences where SCL has made presentations.
Tatham is depicted receiving an award from Laity on his blog:
Documents detail Cambridge Analytica is involved with many other right-leaning billionaires, including Rupert Murdoch.
From January until October 2014, the SCL Group was represented in the United States by the Republican consultant Mark Block, according to his Linkedin profile. Block was the former Wisconsin State Director for the Koch funded Americans for Prosperity.
During these early days, the SCL Group had an office at the News Corp building. As Anne Marlow has reported:
Cambridge Analytica’s website in December 2015 listed its New York address as Suite 2703 in the News Corp. building, 1211 Avenue of the Americas
The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter
In a 2001 book published by the Joint Forces Staff College (available here as a PDF and on Worldcat), its authors describe techniques being developed by Russia that are strikingly similar to those ultimately developed by SCL/Cambridge Analytica. They write:
“Probably the most interesting and neglected Russian element by Westerners is the information-psychological component of IO” (97).
They continue by detailing how Russians have been studying data analysis and psychometrics as a way to wage information warfare. It states:
“Russia military scientists have been studying not only the ability of information warfare to affect the values, emotions, and beliefs of target audiences (traditional psychological warfare theory), but also methods to affect the objective reasoning process” (97).
“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”
Cadwalladr distinguishes her approach from previous reporting on Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group by focusing on the military background of the firm and its methods. Alexander Nix wholeheartedly acknowledged the military origins of their approach in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg Politics:
“This is really trying to use psychology to understand why hostile audiences do what they do, and to use this methodology to deconstruct that behavior and then use communication to try and change attitudes and ultimately behavior,” Nix says. “Persuading somebody to vote in a certain way,” he goes on, “is really very similar to persuading 14- to 25-year-old boys in Indonesia to not join Al Qaeda.”
In an older version of the SCL Elections website, archived here, the copy is explicit about one of its key offerings, "Behavioural Polling", which is known as "Target Audience Analysis" within a military context.
he was the one who first introduced me to Cambridge Analytica
Albright's November 2016 essay published by the London School of Economics US Centre blog was one of the first to raise the issue of Cambridge Analytica's problematic military ites.
I found evidence suggesting they were on a strategic mission to smash the mainstream media and replace it with one comprising alternative facts, fake history and rightwing propaganda.
Cadwalladr isn't the only reporter. The Washington Post published an investigative report in April 2017 detailing Steve Bannon's propaganda efforts on behalf of far-right causes spanning over a decade, including on behalf of the Mercers beginning in 2011.
He was the first person to map and uncover an entire “alt-right” news and information ecosystem
The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica
Cadwalladr starts her article off quickly, and for ease of reading, simplifies some details. Here's a quick history:
Robert Mercer involvement with Cambridge Analytica has been well documented in other news articles. According to a January 2017 article in ItalyEurope24:
“Bannon handled all the negotiations with us on CA's behalf, and Rebekah Mercer, Robert's daughter, was on every telephone call he had with us,” adds a top advisor to Ted Cruz.
An article from Politico notes that 96% of Cambridge Analytica's funding in 2014, its first year as a US-based legal entity, came from SuperPACs affiliated with the Mercers.
In an April 2017 article, the New York Times reported that Rebekah Mercer was:
holed up in her office at Cambridge Analytica in New York, discussing possibilities for Mr. Bannon should he leave, according to two people briefed on the meeting.
Mr. Bannon, the family’s political guru, also advised the company and served as vice president of its board, according to Delaware public records.
Cambridge Analytica is the legal entity of the SCL Group in the United States, as Alexander Nix has written in a blog post:
Cambridge Analytica (or SCL Group as we’re known in Europe)
Further evidence that Cambridge Analytica is synonymous with the SCL Group is a letter, signed by the SCL Group's Julian Wheatland:
The letter, on Cambridge Analytica letterhead, was sent to David Carroll, Associate Professor of Media Design at Parsons School of Design, who requested his data from CA, as detailed in this Medium post.
According to the State of Delaware's Division of Corporations, CA exists as five different legal entities. (You can search the database here or view Anne Marlowe and Wendy Siegelman's chart. The earliest of these entities was created on December 31, 2013. (With the exception of a entity incorporated in 1980.)
According to an interview with Alexander Nix, as recounted by the Washington Post, "the firm entered the entered the U.S. market in 2012 ... and was involved in 44 U.S. races last year ." (Elsewhere, Nix has said the firm entered in 2013.) Nix, who has run the election division of SCL since 2007, stated in a 2016 interview that it was Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 that made evident a market for SCL’s services in the U.S.
The domain sclelections.com has existed since 2008, according to DNS records, and are registered in Nix's name. Early versions of the site are explicit in its offerings: a technique known as "Target Audience Analysis" that has its origins in the military. (Paul-Olivier Dehaye has examined the SCL Group's use of the technique in this Medium post.). In an elections context, it is what the firm refers to as "Behavioural Polling".
Prior to the Mercers involvement with the SCL Group, another billionaire was affiliated with the company for 10 years. As Ann Marlowe has reported, SCL Group's largest shareholder until June 2015 was:
Vincent Tchenguiz, who himself has connections to Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a Putin protégé (and Paul Manafort business associate)
Earlier, psychologists at Cambridge University harvested Facebook data (legally) for research purposes and published pioneering peer-reviewed work about determining personality traits, political partisanship, sexuality and much more from people’s Facebook “likes”.
This was originally examined in a Das Magazin article, which was subsequently translated into English for Motherboard.
It’s effectively part of the British defence establishment
Cambridge Analytica did no paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU.
As Cadwalladr has shown, the claim is demonstrably false, especially when Nix, in an article published in February 2016 stated:
Recently, Cambridge Analytica has teamed up with Leave.EU – the UK’s largest group advocating for a British exit (or ‘Brexit’) from the European Union – to help them better understand and communicate with UK voters. We have already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online, and the campaign’s Facebook page is growing in support to the tune of about 3,000 people per day.
A map shown to the Observer
Cadwalladr subsequently tweed an image of the map.
Cadwalladr subsequently tweeted an excerpt from the memo:
direct communications for several PACs, Senate and Governor campaigns
Tamsin Shaw wrote the April 2017 New York Review of Books article, "The Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind." In the article, she discusses the techniques of the SCL Group and its intellectual genealogy. Shaw also participated in a colloquium on the SCL scandal held by Columbia University's Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, archived here on Youtube.
Iota Global, a partner of the SCL group
IOTA-Global is one of the many legal entities that comprise the SCL Group. It is also referred to as SCL Defence, as this announcement on NATO's StratCom COE indicates. According to Companies House filings, IOTA-Global existed as a legal entity from 2015-2017. Nigel Oakes, SCL's CEO, is listed as the sole director. The domain name www.iota-global.com went live in February 2014 and IOTA-Global joined twitter around the same time, sending this first tweet. Curiously, IOTA-Global also existed as a legal entity from 2008-2010; however, all board members are hidden by shell companies. [This record has since been deleted from the Companies House database.]
Chris Naler is an adjunct faculty member at Texas Christian University and the former Commanding Officer of the USMC Information Operations Center. His TCU profile states that he is currently IOTA-Global's Director of Operations for Americas and Asia-Pacific; the IOTA-Global page in Arabic also lists Naler as a contact. His role is referenced in this tweet from August 2014 and in a November 2015 tweet by @BehaviouralC. According to his TCU profile, Naler was in Latvia in 2015, and, thus, was likely an instructor for IOTA-Global's training at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence there. An article from June 2015, published by Radio Liberty, discusses the training program. The 8-week train-the-trainer course was funded by Canada with a $1M dollar grant. Background on the training can be found in this 2014 NATO Stratcom COE publication.