Cambridge Analytica: Mass Manipulation or Just Good Marketing?

Published March 28th, 2018 - 01:41 GMT

By Eleanor Beevor

  • The scandal enveloping Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is growing
  • The Orwellian reputation the company is developing may just be clever marketing
  • There is still limited evidence that its “personality profiling” techniques either really work, or are being used extensively in its election campaigns
  • If these breaches of online privacy are to be discouraged, we shouldn’t reward the companies responsible by claiming they have more power than they really do
Cambridge Analytica may yet emerge largely unscathed from the scandal consuming the company now. If it does, the current furore around its supposedly awesome power to swing elections could ultimately serve as free advertising on a scale the company would never have been able to achieve by itself.


The Trump connection

That may seem hard to imagine now. The scandal has been growing with a series of shocks as new leaks about the company’s bad behaviour emerge. On the 18th of March, The Guardian published an expose from a former Cambridge Analytica researcher-turned-whistleblower. Chris Wylie, a 28-year-old programmer and data visionary, claims to have created a power that was abused by right-wing forces backed by billionaires, a wrong he now wishes to fix.

Wylie was interested in whether message targeting could go beyond the typical demographic traits relied upon by advertisers and campaigners - age, ethnicity, income - and instead hone in on individuals’ personality types. His potential was soon spotted. In 2013, Alexander Nix, the CEO of a PR firm called SCL Group that has a dedicated branch for information operations in elections, hired Wylie. He soon introduced him to Steve Bannon, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart and soon-to-be Trump adviser.

Bannon was gripped by Wylie’s ideas, and in partnership with Nix, pitched an opportunity to billionaires and conservative mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer. The Mercers agreed to fund a new venture, Cambridge Analytica, with Nix as CEO and total freedom for Wylie to develop his ideas. For Wylie, Cambridge Analytica was apparently an intellectual experiment. For Bannon and the Mercers, it was a tool that would give culture-wars based campaigning an unprecedented reach.

Facebook profiles

These “personality types” were collected via Facebook profiles. Cambridge Analytica sought access to Facebookdata from Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University who developed a Facebook app that allowed users to measure their personality type. Unbeknownst to the user that took the quiz, not only would their Facebook profile data be harvested, but so would that of their friends, owing to a loophole in Facebook’s data protection systems. (Facebook was apparently aware of the breach but did little to combat it until much later, a move for which Mark Zuckerberg has since had to profusely apologise with a full-page newspaper advert.)

Kogan then sold these profiles’ information to Cambridge Analytica, a procedure that is illegal under UK data laws. Cambridge Analytica blames Kogan for this breach, whilst Kogan insists that the company told him they had ensured the sale’s legality. Either way, Cambridge Analytica acquired the information it needed to create psychological profiles of 230 million Americans with which to target people online.

But the rest is not yet, as they say, history. Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are now being subjected to intense investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. This is including by Robert Mueller, Special Counsel for the investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Facebook has been deeply embarrassed, its shares have fallen sharply, and its users are now likely to be far more sceptical about its claims to protect their privacy. However, we still don’t know just how much of an impact Cambridge Analytica has actually had on elections. Still, it may be a lot less than the company would like us to think it is.

Mark Zuckerberg (AFP/File)


Political campaigning

The much-hyped personality profiling is far from an exact science. Professor Donald Green, a political scientist and an expert in political campaigning at Columbia University, told Al Bawaba:

“In order for personality tests to give political advertisers useful information, the advertisers must have conducted large-scale tests to ascertain the relative effectiveness of their ads on people with different personality types. I see no evidence that Cambridge Analytica actually conducted such tests. 

Moreover, Cambridge Analytica did not have access to personality tests for the 50 million Facebook users whose public pages they scraped; instead, they used statistical forecasts based on a much smaller number of people who took personality tests to impute personality scores for everyone else. These forecasts are fraught with prediction error, which further reduces the value of this information to advertisers looking to maximize impact.  As far as I can tell, the notion that Cambridge Analytica produced something of value for its clients is based on its own salesmanship, not on any direct statistical evidence.”

On the 23rd of March, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director Brittany Kaiser leaked the details of what exactly the company did for the Trump campaign. According to Kaiser, the company created a “data infrastructure” for digital campaigning where there had previously been none. What exactly the information gleaned from Facebook was for in the campaign was more mysterious, although the psychological profiles created from it might have allowed more efficient updates on the effectiveness of the political messaging and voter targeting.

Persuasion search advertising

One of their most effective pieces of content was apparently a piece of native advertising (adverts on news sites that are dressed up to look like news articles) criticising the Clinton Foundation on the Politico website. Effective though it may have been, that may simply be a result of the dubious nature of native advertising itself.

Another of Cambridge Analytica’s tricks was “persuasion search advertising” on Google, which pushes targeted content to the top of a user’s search history - in this case, negative stories about Clinton and positive coverage of Trump. Again this is likely effective, but as Kaiser herself admitted, it’s a common and remarkably easy tactic made use of across the advertising industry.

In short, we still don’t have much evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s personality profiling wares are particularly effective, other than the say-so of the company’s sales team. And prior to the scandal, many in Washington were of the opinion that Cambridge Analytica’s marketing was a lot more effective than its actual services.

The same was said of its parent company SCL Group. In 2000 SCL had a contract in Indonesia to boost the image of President Wahid, for which it established an impressive looking base of operations in Jakarta. The base was complete with enormous screens, but according to Indonesian sources who visited it, the set-up had no function other than to look like a scene from a high-tech spy novel. It was compared to the set of the villain’s lair in the James Bond film Goldeneye, and the similarity may not have been an accident – the same set design company used in the film also built SCR a similar-looking control room to take to defence equipment exhibitions.

However bad things may look for Cambridge Analytica now, it is not yet finished. They may get a hefty fine for breaking data protection laws. CEO Alexander Nix will have to go – he is already suspended after being caught on camera by Channel 4 by a journalist posing as a client from Sri Lanka looking to smear a political opponent. In the exchange, Nix suggests sending “beautiful Ukranian girls” to the opponent’s house for defamatory material.

But the things that the public finds outrageous are the same things that potential clients looking for political mercenaries want to see. And if Cambridge Analytica survives with an image of being an Orwellian mass-manipulator, it will ultimately be rewarded, or inspire more companies to play the same game. It might not be a reputation that everybody wants, but it may also be one Cambridge Analytica doesn’t really deserve.


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