Ela Gonca Izmirli, Washington Hatti US
This is the first article in Washington Hatti US’ long read series about Donald Trump and some of his supporters. Following a presidential campaign consumed by conspiracy theories, Donald Trump shocked the world by dismantling the Democrats’ “blue wall” and winning a majority of the Electoral College. Controversial presidential elections are nothing new in American electoral history, however, the implications of the 2016 election seem more drastic due to the Democrats’ gut level reaction to Donald Trump and the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian leadership.
In this series, we will be looking into some of the claims about a few Donald Trump supporters who are associated with the President through Robert Mercer, co-owner of a very successful hedge fund and one of the biggest financiers of Donald Trump. What we discovered during this research was a web of connections that includes some of the world’s biggest banks, fringe conspiracy theorists, data analytics companies, claims of voter manipulation, tax evasion and international money laundering operations…
“Trouble on the Way”The end of last month marked the one-year anniversary of the Brexit referendum when British public decided, by a very slim margin, to leave the European Union. The shocking results triggered a series of events that might have an impact on the future of Britain’s economy and offset its relationship with the rest of Europe.
The pro-Brexit campaign, Leave, claimed that leaving the EU was necessary to stop unwanted immigration of EU citizens – mainly focusing on the ‘refugee problem’ – to reverse the unfair EU regulations that hurt the economy, and cessation of net contributions to the EU would allow tax cuts and/or increases in government spending. They also claimed that the UK would not lose access to the European markets.
However, the post-referendum situation turned out to be somewhat different. While Brexit negotiations are about to begin, the British people and businesses are already feeling the effects of the disconnect from the EU entirely.
Most of the talk in the press has been about the financial industry and the status of London as the capital of European Financial Technology. Losing access to the European markets could have disastrous effects on the many British banks, tech companies, and investment firms.
Meanwhile, a second Scottish independence referendum became “highly likely.” Voters in Scotland backed “Remain,” by 62% to 38% whereas the electorate UK-wide voted for “Leave,” by 52% to 48%.
While England started to feel the effects of the Brexit decision, BBC aired a short segment on its flagship news and current affairs TV program Newsnight, about a small and relatively unknown firm called Cambridge Analytica and their possible involvement with the so-called Brexit referendum.
Cambridge Analytica is a private company that mines and analyzes consumer data to help political campaigns communicate with their electorate more efficiently. The company, an offshoot of the British SCL Group, was founded in 2013 to participate in American politics.
The company, started by Nigel Oakes of SCL Group, is currently owned by reclusive American billionaire Robert Mercer and has been described as a “psychological warfare firm.” SCL’s military division has been retained by US State Department and NATO for psychological operations – psyops.
In the BBC Documentary, Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, explains: “we train militaries in psyops all over the world, and our military division is very separate from our political group,” and claims there is a firewall between the two divisions. “The only commonality between [the two divisions] is some people,” says Nix, meaning some shareholders being in the structure of both groups.
“The Guardian” in an article claimed that the company employs senior ex-army officers experienced in psychological warfare operations.
The first year of its operations in the US, Cambridge Analytica was involved in 44 U.S. political races and numerous other international contracts revolving around the electoral races across the world. In 2014 alone the company supported more than 100 campaigns across five continents – in countries such as Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Kenya, Iran, Moldova, etc.
While Cambridge Analytica’s activities look perfectly legal, the ethics implied when working with the massive amount of data that contains personal information about the people seems murky. How they obtain the data and use it are also questionable.
The CEO of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix, in speeches to the global elite, promotes their method of “psychographic profiling,” “mining for political purposes,” identifying “mean personalities,” and more… Nix’s speeches lend a new perspective on Cambridge Analytica’s activities. Entering the stage with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” Nix starts his speeches by talking about the power of “Big Data.” Clicking through his slides, Nix contrasts “informational” and “behavioral” communication, showing two signs; both intended to keep the public out of a private beach. One sign says “Public Beach Ends Here Private Property,” which Nix calls “largely informational and seeks to inform attitudes.” The second sign says “WARNING Shark Sighted.” Nix calls the second sign “behavioral communication.” Nix pointedly ignores the fact that – unless actually a shark had been sighted – the second sign is untrue. He also neglects to point out that the second sign, while effective, might altogether stop the beach-goers from using the public part of the beach as well.
Nix at his speeches explains how Cambridge Analytica can appeal to humans’ “emotions,” bypassing the “cognitive roadblocks” – which possibly is his fancy term for facts – thanks to the multitude of data they can mine through the internet using peoples’ social media accounts.
To illustrate, he shows a sample of the American electorate, thousands of red and blue dots. With a few clicks, he starts segmenting the dots, creating subgroups, and even smaller subgroups with the personality traits that might be more receptive to the candidate’s message. He claims the firm can tailor specific messages that appeal to the voters’ emotions, bypassing the “cognitive roadblocks” on the way.
Cambridge Analytica claims to use a variation of the five-factor model (FFM), a model based on shared language descriptors of personality, which the company calls the OCEAN model. The letters of the acronym OCEAN stands for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and most importantly, Neuroticism. The firm says they collected the data from the social media accounts of the voters.
In a Motherboard article Michal Kosinski – one of the leading researchers in psychometrics – says that they developed small online tests and questionnaires that they dumped on Facebook at the time while he was a Ph.D. student at the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University. Over time Kosinski claims that their model was able to evaluate a person better than their colleagues from ten Facebook likes. The more likes, the better the model could predict the social media users’ personality. Seventy likes were enough to know more about a person than their friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 likes what their partner knew. “More likes could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves,” claims the article.
Cambridge Analytica says that they use a similar set of data, collected online from unsuspecting users, to identify every voter in the United States. Nix during his speeches says that they have close to 4-5 thousand data points for every adult in the United States and using that information they can tailor messages they send to the voter sub-groups. The firm calls its services “election management.” Using psychographic algorithms, the company allows political campaigns to specifically target not only the neurotic, angry individuals but also the most unsuspecting, gullible, easy marks. Using the company’s software, they find people who are open to a particular type of persuasion and send them individually targetted messages.
Trump campaign, despite paying 5 million dollars for Cambridge Analytica’s services denies using psychometrics for the 2016 campaign. The campaign also denied that they were behind the barrage of anti-Clinton ads and propaganda created in Eastern Europe that specifically targeted certain people in the United States to either discourage them from voting or if possible encouraging them to vote for Trump. Putin claimed that some “patriotic Russians” might have interfered with the US elections but denied that the Russian government had anything to do with it.
So far no senior member of the Trump administration has placed a high value on asking what psychographic data is, how closely it is related to psyops, ethics of collecting data on voters online or political messaging based on “emotions” evading cognition and rational thinking. Activists in Europe have started to ask these questions. The BBC documentary might be a sign that the worries are starting to spread to the general public.
In the lyrics of the famous Creedence Clearwater Revival song, trouble is on its way indeed.