Before helping Trump win with data mining, Cambridge Analytica tipped elections with old-fashioned tricks
The data firm credited with skewing social media to help both the Trump and “Brexit” campaigns win last year got its start with much lower-tech efforts to tilt elections.
Cambridge Analytica boasts of targeting undecided voters on social media and serving them targeted messages and advertising based on the firm’s “psychographic data models,” although many critics describe their claims as “snake oil.”
The company and CEO Alexander Nix have enjoyed a high profile since selling high-tech solutions in those surprising election wins, but they pushed old-fashioned dirty tricks in previous work on political campaigns in several nations, reported Bloomberg News.
The 41-year-old Nix said his company’s new fame is “a double-edged sword,” because some clients prefer to keep a low profile.
“Previously we were able to do our job in the background,” said Nix, a popular speaker in the tech and marketing world.
Nix confirmed Feb. 8 that SCL had targeted voters on social media during the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union, but he has backed away from those claims after a newspaper report suggested Cambridge Analytica might have taken an unreported in-kind donation in violation of election law.
Nix entered the U.S. market in 2013, when he spun off Cambridge Analytica from the London-based SCL, with the backing of tech billionaire Robert Mercer, who owns a reported $10 billion stake in the firm.
Cambridge Analytica — whose board reportedly included Steve Bannon until he went to work in the White House — worked for the Ted Cruz campaign until Mercer switched his allegiance to Trump, and the data firm went to work for the eventual GOP nominee.
The firm claims to have psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters, based in large part on Facebook likes, which the company uses to target their deepest emotions and turn social media into a “propaganda machine.”
The company’s predecessor, SCL, used similar tricks — but with lower-tech methods — during political campaigns in Africa, the Caribbean and a former Soviet republic.
Nix confirmed SCL ran a 2006 campaign in Latvia intended to stoke tension between Latvians and ethnic Russians, who were blamed for unemployment and other economic problems, based on the firm’s research showing that would “influence voting behavior.”
SCL also advised a pair of Latvian candidates in 2010, and then hired by their party alliance to determine why they’d fared so poorly in the parliamentary election — which the data firm handed off to a subcontractor but never paid for their analysis.
“It was amateurish,” said Aigars Freimanis, who founded the local subcontractor. “We were extremely suspicious about the claims they could do this (because) they never had the capacity to make a decent poll themselves.”
Bloomberg also reported that SCL used a graffiti campaign in Trinidad that was intended to look like the work of young locals, and the firm’s client then took on similar policies and claimed credit for appealing to a “united locals.”
Nix confirmed the company used “street media,” which he said was a common practice in Trinidad, for its client, the United National Congress.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, SCL helped the St. Lucia government research solutions to rising crime, and the firm offered free assistance to the prime minister in 2011 on a public health campaign, but the project fell apart after the island’s leader lost his election.
SCL also took part in Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt 2007 election — which international observers found was marred by ballot stuffing, falsified votes and censorship of opposition viewpoints.
The data firm’s website said SCL helped the ruling People’s Democratic Party discourage opposition supporters from voting by organizing “anti-poll rallies” the day of the election — but that description was later reworded without explanation.
In the new version, SCL encouraged PDP to discredit their opponents with election day rallies highlighting the opposition’s “shortcomings.”
Nix denied that SCL had ever “undertaken any campaign to discourage voting or undermine the democratic process.”