The Trump campaign successfully elected Donald Trump as president of the United States on November 8, 2016. This may have been in part due to their reliance on behavioral data-analytics of the American citizenry through “microtargeting.” Microtargeting is a technique that uses computers and mathematical models to collect disparate pieces of information about voters, the cars they own, the music they listen to, their age and gender, etc. to then analyze this information in order to predict how a person is likely to vote by determining which issues and values are most important to these persons.
Cambridge Analytica is a company that specializes in microtargeting by aggregating, selling, and mining online data to influence potential voters. How does this company do so? Primarily Cambridge Analytica accesses and measures a person’s voter profile via digital footprints from “big data” analyses, the OCEAN model (also known as the “Big Five” personality traits), and ad targeting, which is personalized advertising that corresponds with the specific consumer’s personality. Many political observers have postulated that the success of the Trump campaign’s microtargeting was due to Cambridge Analytica’s mechanized use of psychometrics, or psychographics, a data driven branch of psychology that measures psychological traits and serves as a quantitative study of human characteristics and behavioral choices.
Robert Mercer, an elusive hedge-fund billionaire, and the primary investor of Cambridge Analytica, sought to finance a big data project to influence the 2016 US presidential election. He funded both Breitbart News, a far-right online news platform, and Cambridge Analytica, with approximately $15 million. Jane Mayer, who researched the Mercer family for her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, describes Mercer as having peculiar far-right views, including far-fetched, unfounded allegations that the Clintons are murderers.
Cambridge Analytica is an affiliate of a larger British company known as Strategic Communication Laboratories, which specializes in psychological warfare. Alexander Nix, the chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, has openly stated that the firm has created profiles that include several thousand “data points” for 220 million Americans in order to persuade people to vote in a specific way. These psychographic profiles can be focused to the level of an individual living in a single household, with specific identifying information including name, address, personality traits, interests, and of course political tendencies. To be sure, politicians beginning with the George W. Bush administration have been using various forms of microtargeting to aid their voter campaigns. So what is so disturbing about the decisive role that Cambridge Analytica may have played in the rise of Trump? As Nix tells it, “While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.” In essence, the more that vast amounts of data are aggregated, the more intrusive the technology becomes.
Most Americans are unaware that data about them is being gathered, stored and analyzed, and few ever consented to this invasive surveillance. It is important that citizens maintain the ability to think critically for themselves and make their own choices. This technology threatens this fundamental human freedom. Nefarious political operatives are carrying out elaborate schemes to coerce voters in their direction to vote for their candidate. As part of these schemes efforts are also made to steer certain voters away from the opposing candidate, in this case Clinton. “Dark posts,” or specific sponsored news-feed-style ads found in Facebook timelines, can only be seen by users with specific profiles. Such posts were employed to suppress the voter turn out of potential Clinton supporters.
This story is not being covered in the mainstream media. The New Yorker and VICE were the primary news sources that contained any information regarding this subject, and Democracy Now! featured an interview with Jane Mayer, author of the New Yorker article and Dark Money, to discuss Mercer’s relation to Trump and Bannon.
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.
Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer Exploited America’s Populist Insurgency,” New Yorker, March 27, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency.
“Jane Mayer on Robert Mercer & 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.
Student Researcher: Olivia Jones (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)