#5 Big Data and Dark Money behind the 2016 Election

by Project Censored
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Right-wing computer scientist and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer was the top donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, contributing $13.5 million and helping lay the groundwork for what is now called the Trump Revolution. Mercer also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies” and using microtargeting. As Carole Cadwalladr reported for the Guardian in February 2017, Cambridge Analytica’s website boasts that it has psychological profiles based on thousands of pieces of data for some 220 million American voters. As Jane Mayer and other independent journalists reported, Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and others used these capacities to exploit a populist insurgency among voters and tip the election toward Trump.

Right-wing websites are now dominating Google’s search results on certain subjects. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, mapped the “news ecosystem” and found millions of links to right-wing sites “strangling” the mainstream media. As the Guardian and the New Yorker reported, Albright has described Cambridge Analytica as a “propaganda machine,” using trackers from sites like Breitbart to document people’s web histories and target them with messages and advertisements via their Facebook accounts.

Mercer’s money also enabled Steve Bannon to fund Breitbart, a right-wing news site established with the express intent of serving as a Huffington Post for the Right. Since 2010, Mercer has donated $95 million to right-wing political campaigns and nonprofits. As Cadwalladr reported in the Guardian, Mercer funds the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think tank, and the Media Research Center, which refers to itself as “America’s Media Watchdog” and aims to correct “liberal bias.” (On the Heartland Institute, see also Suzanne Goldenberg, “Leak Exposes How Heartland Institute Works to Undermine Climate Science,” Guardian, February 14, 2012.)

In an article for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer described Mercer as a “brilliant computer scientist” who has “never given an interview explaining his political views,” and yet is “emblematic” of a major shift of power in American politics, from the two main political parties toward “a tiny group of rich mega-donors.” (Mayer researched the Mercer family for her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right.) Mayer quoted Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, on the effects of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

As Mayer reported, Mercer has argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major mistake, and sources who know Mercer told Mayer that he has stated that the Clintons have had opponents of theirs murdered, and that, during the Gulf War, the US should have simply taken Iraq’s oil. As Mayer wrote, “despite his oddities, he has had surprising success in aligning the Republican Party, and consequently America, with his personal beliefs, and is now uniquely positioned to exert influence over the Trump Administration.”

Cambridge Analytica is an affiliate of a larger British company known as Strategic Communication Laboratories. As Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus reported, Alexander Nix, the chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, was quoted in a company press release the day after Trump’s victory, saying, “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win.” Cambridge Analytica began working for the Trump campaign in June 2016, after initially providing analysis for Ted Cruz. (Cambridge Analytica is also believed to have worked for the organization Leave.EU in its Brexit campaign.) According to Nix, Grassegger and Krogerus reported, Cambridge Analytica combined behavioral science based on the measurement of psychological traits, Big Data analysis—premised on the fact that everything we do leaves digital traces—and ad targeting that is aligned “to the personality of an individual.”

As Nix told the audience at the Concordia Summit in New York in September 2016, once Cambridge Analytica became involved with the Trump campaign, “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven.” For example, Grassegger and Krogerus reported, on the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Trump team “tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook.” The results were examples of “dark posts”—sponsored newsfeed-style advertisements that will only be seen by users with specific profiles. These specifically tailored and targeted messages ignored demographics, data Nix dismissed as “a really ridiculous idea.” What Nix meant, Grassegger and Krogerus explained, is that “while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.” Prior psychometric research has shown that a sample of just sixty-eight Facebook “likes” is sufficient to predict a user’s skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent accuracy).

As Grassegger and Krogerus reported, this new approach informed not only direct messaging to potential Trump voters, but also Trump’s canvassers. From July 2016, they used an app, known as Ground Game, to identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. As Grassegger and Krogerus wrote, “Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.” (Advocates in the Brexit campaign used the same app.) While Clinton and the Democrats relied on traditional demographic data to inform their campaign, Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign divided the US population into thirty-two personality types and focused on seventeen specific states. According to Grassegger and Krogerus, data analysis using psychometrics led to the campaign’s focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks. “The candidate,” they wrote, “became the instrument for implementing a big data model.” Cambridge Analytica, they reported in January 2017, earned an estimated $15 million overall during the 2016 campaign, and Nix, the company’s CEO, is “currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States.”

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard (VICE), January 28, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win.

Carole Cadwalladr, “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media,” Guardian, February 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage.

Jane Mayer, interviewed by Nermeen Shaikh and Amy Goodman, “Jane Mayer on Robert Mercer and the Dark Money Behind Trump and Bannon,” Democracy Now!, March 23, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/23/jane_mayer_on_robert_mercer_the.

Travis Gettys, “Before Helping Trump Win with Data Mining, Cambridge Analytica Tipped Elections with Old-Fashioned Tricks,” Raw Story, March 24, 2017, http://www.rawstory.com/2017/03/before-helping-trump-win-with-data-mining-cambridge-analytica-tipped-elections-with-old-fashioned-tricks/.

Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” New Yorker, March 27, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency.

Student Researchers: Maura Rocio Tellez (San Francisco State University) and Olivia Jones (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluators: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University) and Rob Williams (University of Vermont)