A data analysis company credited with helping Donald Trump win the election turned social media into a “propaganda machine” using data harvested from thousands of quasi-volunteers who perform simple online tasks.
Those workers, known as “turkers,” started chattering on message boards in 2014 about an offer to pay them $1 or $2 to complete a survey through Facebook, reported The Intercept.
The offer itself wasn’t usual, because Mechanical Turk freelancers — who are paid small amounts to perform rote tasks computers cannot — are frequently hired to complete online surveys for marketers, researchers or even artists.
But this survey, which was posted by Global Science Research and limited only to Americans, required turkers to download a Facebook app that sucked up information about where they went, what celebrities they liked and other data from their own profiles and anyone on their friends list.
Amazon Web Services, which controls Mechanical Turk, suspended the survey the following year for violating their terms of service, but thousands of Facebook users’ personal data had already been scooped up by a Cambridge University lecturer.
That researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, founded Global Science Research in 2014 and began working with Strategic Communication Laboratories — which spun off the U.S.-based Cambridge Analytica with the help of billionaire conservative Robert Mercer.
SCL did election work in Africa, the Caribbean and a former Soviet republic — where the firm used propaganda techniques to stoke ethnic tensions, fake youth activism campaigns and discourage voting with misleading political rallies.
Its spinoff, Cambridge Analytica, and Mercer became closely aligned with the Trump campaign and brought board member Steve Bannon on as campaign CEO, along with campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, whose husband does legal work for the firm.
The Intercept spoke to five sources familiar with Kogan’s research, and they said he arranged for more than 100,000 people to take the Facebook survey and download the app.
Another source said Global Science Research collected data from 185,000 survey participants, as well as their Facebook friends, recruited through a data company, and not Mechanical Turk.
That gave the firm access to 30 million usable profiles — and none of those social media users knew their “likes” and other demographic data had been harvested by political operatives.
Kogan — who changed his name to Spectre after getting married — declined to comment, but he claimed in 2014 to have a sample of more than 50 million individuals that gave his data company the ability to “predict virtually any trait.”
An internal document signed by an SCL employee showed Kogan’s work was intended to develop an algorithm that would allow for the “national profiling capacity of American citizens.”
A spokesperson said Cambridge Analytica no longer does any work with Facebook likes and does not currently have a relationship with Global Science Research.
Facebook asked GSR in 2015 to delete the data it harvested from users, after The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica was using the information to help Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Cambridge Analytica, and Mercer, switched over to Trump as Cruz faded in the primary race.
The firm claims to have psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters, which the company uses to target their emotions and influence their thoughts and behavior.