Two reporters for Zurich's Das Magazin take a look at British data analysis company Cambridge Analytica in this week's Sunday Long Read at Vice and find there's a method to the madness of "fake news" and social manipulation in the 2016 elections.
On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.
For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV.
On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn't just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK's Brexit campaign as well.
Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.
Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data. Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored. Especially every “like.” For a long time, it was not entirely clear what use this data could have—except, perhaps, that we might find ads for high blood pressure remedies just after we’ve Googled “reduce blood pressure.”
On November 9, it became clear that maybe much more is possible. The company behind Trump’s online campaign—the same company that had worked for Leave.EU in the very early stages of its "Brexit" campaign—was a Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica.
To understand the outcome of the election—and how political communication might work in the future—we need to begin with a strange incident at Cambridge University in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.
The reality is Facebook is an open book, and that building a database of profiles based on likes and activity online was far easier than anyone has ever imagined. One company discovered that you could use Facebook to target people you wanted to target with messages tailored to them from a political standpoint. It can be used to get Trump voters to go vote, and could be used to get Clinton voters to throw their votes away.
For the Trump campaign, it worked far better than anyone could have guessed. The money you didn't see Trump spending on traditional political advertising was being spent on Cambridge Analytica, as much as $15 million in order to individually target people through the internet and directing canvassers with specific messages to specific houses.
The Clinton camp had no clue what was going on, either. They had no way of knowing. The Trump campaign unleashed this weapon in 17 states, and it was this data model that put Trump in the Rust Belt in the last month of the campaign.
It won him the White House.