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Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 Election: What you need to know (updated)


"If you want to fundamentally reshape society, you first have to break it." ~ Christopher Wylie

[Interview: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: 'We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles' – video]

"You’ve probably heard by now that Cambridge Analytica, which is backed by the borderline-psychotic Mercer family and was formerly chaired by Steve Bannon, had a decisive role in manipulating voters on a one-by-one basis – using their own personal data to push them toward voting for Donald Trump in the last election. They did this with a backdoor data-gathering operation that had been quietly shut down after it had harvested the information from up to 50 million people. Cambridge weaponized this information by turning out highly personalized newsfeed content aimed directly at households in critical voting districts." ~ Joshua Brown

Key players in the latest war on democracy include Cambridge Analytica (CA) (the voter-profiling firm used by Trump's campaign in the 2016 election); SCL Group (British political and defense contractor that owns Cambridge Analytica); Robert Mercer (US hedge-fund billionaire, Republican donor, major investor in CA); Rebekah Mercer (Mercer’s daughter, board member of CA); Stephen Bannon (former executive chairman of Breitbart News, former head of CA, former Trump campaign and White House adviser); the Trump campaign; Facebook ("launchpad for an extraordinary attack on the democratic process"); Christopher Wylie (CA whistleblower); Alexander Nix (CA's CEO who set up the company with an investment from Mercer); Aleksandr Kogan (researcher who set up Global Science Research to carry out CA’s research, beneficiary of Russian government grants); Thisisyourdigitallife (app built by Aleksandr Kogan to collect data from Facebook); and Lukoil (Russian oil giant which alledged interacted with CA employees).

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions (NY Times)

LONDON — As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.

The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. 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 President Trump’s campaign in 2016.


Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”

“They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”

The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr tells the story from the perspective of Christopher Wylie, "the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating Steve Bannon's  psychological warfare mindfuck tool”:

The Cambridge Analytica Files: ‘I created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower (The Guardian)

The first time I met Christopher Wylie, he didn’t yet have pink hair. That comes later. As does his mission to rewind time. To put the genie back in the bottle.

By the time I met him in person, I’d already been talking to him on a daily basis for hours at a time. On the phone, he was clever, funny, bitchy, profound, intellectually ravenous, compelling. A master storyteller. A politicker. A data science nerd.

Two months later, when he arrived in London from Canada, he was all those things in the flesh. And yet the flesh was impossibly young. He was 27 then (he’s 28 now), a fact that has always seemed glaringly at odds with what he has done. He may have played a pivotal role in the momentous political upheavals of 2016. At the very least, he played a consequential role. At 24, he came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign.

More details of CA's operations (chart below may help sort out confusion):

Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach (The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison)

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”


The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing Facebook data. Cambridge Analytica spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to resonate.

According to company insiders and documents, SCL and CA employees had meetings with executives from the Russian oil company Lukoil. CA CEO Nix claims otherwise. 

Data Firm Tied to Trump Campaign Talked Business With Russians (NY Times, Danny Hakim and Matthew Rosenberg) 

When the Russia question came up during a hearing at the British Parliament last month, Alexander Nix did not hesitate.

“We’ve never worked in Russia,” said Mr. Nix, head of a data consulting firm that advised the Trump campaign on targeting voters.

“As far as I’m aware, we’ve never worked for a Russian company,” Mr. Nix added. “We’ve never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country, and we don’t have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”

But Mr. Nix’s business did have some dealings with Russian interests, according to company documents and interviews.

Mr. Nix is a director of SCL Group, a British political and defense contractor, and chief executive of its American offshoot, Cambridge Analytica, which advised the Trump campaign. The firms’ employees, who often overlap, had contact in 2014 and 2015 with executives from Lukoil, the Russian oil giant.

Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders who said there were at least three meetings with Lukoil executives in London and Turkey. SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature, and SCL also said there were no meetings in London.

How Cambridge Analytica turned Facebook ‘likes’ into a lucrative political tool (The Guardian)

The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.
A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. 
Cambridge Analytica has been accused of violating a variety of US election campaign laws:

Staff claim Cambridge Analytica ignored US ban on foreigners working on elections (The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison)

Cambridge Analytica employed non-American citizens to work on US election campaigns in apparent violation of federal law, despite receiving a legal warning about the risks.

The company’s responsibilities under US law were laid out in a lawyer’s memo to the company’s vice-president, Steve Bannon, British CEO Alexander Nix and Rebekah Mercer, daughter of billionaire owner Robert Mercer, in July 2014. It made it clear that most senior and mid-level positions involving strategy, planning, fundraising or campaigning needed to be filled by US citizens.

Did Russia poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain to send a threatening message to witnesses and people cooperating with Mueller?


Congressman Joaquin Castro was frustrated and angry. The Texas Democrat had just learned that the Republicans were pulling the plug on the tortured, bastardized House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. “I just saw—on the news—that Mike Conaway is announcing that they’re wrapping up the investigation and the committee is just going to do a report,” Castro, a member of the committee, says. “There are unanswered questions on collusion, money laundering, and obstruction. Not following any of these leads is an abject failure for the American people. So thank God that Bob Mueller and the Senate are still conducting their investigations.”

The Senate probes have plenty of their own partisan constraints. Mueller, however, has been barreling ahead. In mid-February the special counsel unveiled the indictment of 13 Russians and 3 Russian-related companies, charging them with waging a sprawling effort to plant thousands of bogus Internet items and stage sham rallies in support of the Trump campaign. Last month’s indictment, though, did more than identify alleged foreign criminals: it laid a foundation for Mueller’s next big move. He’s likely to target another batch of Russians, this time for hacking into the Democratic National Committee, Republican National Committee, and Clinton campaign computers—and outside investigators expect Mueller will also name Americans who may have helped the Russians distribute the hacked materials.

CNN reports that Facebook is examining an employee's ties to Cambridge Analytica:

Facebook investigating employee's links to Cambridge Analytica (CNN)

Facebook told CNN it is looking into ties between one of its current employees and Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm that worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign and was suspended by Facebook on Friday.

Joseph Chancellor, now a researcher at Facebook (FB), was a director of Global Science Research, a company that provided data to Cambridge Analytica. The New York Times and The Observer newspaper in London reported Saturday that Cambridge Analytica harvested information on 50 million Facebook users.

Hilary Osborne takes a closer look at Cambridge Analytica:

What is Cambridge Analytica? The firm at the centre of Facebook's data breach (The Guardian)

What are Cambridge Analytica’s links with Donald Trump?

Robert Mercer, a key Trump supporter and donor, gave $15m in funding to Cambridge Analytica. Mercer, who also funded the rightwing website Breitbart, was introduced to the firm by Steve Bannon. Bannon, who was on its board from 2014 to 2016, headed the last phase of Trump’s election campaign and then served as his chief strategist.

The company worked on three candidates’ campaigns for the presidency, including Trump’s. On its website it describes analysing millions of data points to identify the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about and then sending them messages to “move them to action”. Voters in 17 states were polled every day, and online advertising and social media used to send them messages. The company claims that in this way it boosted donations and turn out and contributed to Trump’s victory.

As we now know, some of the data came from profiles to which the company was not supposed to have access, rather than being freely available to harvest.

Everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica exposé – video explainer (The Guardian)

Wylie describes how its CEO, Alexander Nix, attracted support from the then Breitbart editor, Steve Bannon, and investment from the billionaire Robert Mercer before obtaining help from the Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan to harvest tens of millions of Facebook profiles.

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