Conspiracy Theories

Cambridge Analytica, the Election Interference Operation That Wasn't

It wasn’t a plot to undermine democracy. It wasn’t a Russian intelligence operation. It was a low-tech scam.

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It's common to view President Donald Trump's first term as a tragedy, a national meltdown in which democracy itself is under siege from big tech, foreign governments, and other shadowy actors. 

But just as often, it has been a vehicle for farce—and few episodes encapsulate the era's absurdity and panicky self-regard more than the supposed scandal surrounding social media data mining firm Cambridge Analytica.  

The details surrounding the firm's political involvement are convoluted and multitudinous, but the essence of the allegation was that the firm, which worked under various guises in both the United States and in Britain, was a shadowy operation that used improperly harvested social media data to create psychographic voter profiles that may have helped Trump win the 2016 election, swung the Brexit vote toward British independence, and given foreign rivals (especially Russia) a potent tool for sowing chaos in the Democratic Party via Facebook. The story generated massive amounts of news coverage from major organs of the mainstream press, which in turn resulted in congressional hearings and high-profile government inquiries in both the U.S. and the U.K. 

The story, in other words, was a perfect storm of Trump-era panics and paranoias. And it was almost entirely hokum.  

For an idea of the sort of media and politics firestorm that Cambridge Analytica's work produced, it's worth looking back to early 2018, when The New York Times reported that the company had engaged in a nefarious bit of business: After receiving some $15 million from Robert Mercer, a wealthy conservative donor who backed organizations such as Breitbart News, the company "wooed [Mercer's] political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior." 

To do that, it needed massive amounts of data. And so, the story went, it turned to Facebook. Cambridge Analytica "harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission," by paying for a data trove from an independent researcher. The result, the Times reported, was "one of the largest data leaks in the social network's history."

The company had vague links to the Russian oil business, and the Facebook user data in question had been obtained from Aleksandr Kogan, an academic who, The Guardian found, had "unreported ties to a Russian university." In a rhetorical flourish typical of the sort of coverage Cambridge Analytica sparked, the Guardian's report described the voter profiles as a "project to turn tens of millions of Facebook profiles into a unique political weapon" and noted that revelations of Kogan's Russia ties came "at a time of intense US scrutiny of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election."

All of this carried ominous implications not just for Cambridge Analytica, but for Facebook, the source of the user data that allowed the company to create the voter-profiling tool. A New York Times item from March 2018 carried the headline, "Facebook's Role in Data Misuse Sets off Storms on Two Continents." The Massachusetts attorney general launched an investigation into the social media giant. Lawmakers such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.) called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress. In Britain, members of Parliament made similar calls.  

All the while, the threat of Russian interference into American elections was in the air, even if the direct connections remained murky. As the Times reported: "The two top Congressional Democrats leading inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election—Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representative Adam Schiff of California—called for investigations of the Facebook data leak. 'This raises serious questions about the level of detail that Cambridge Analytica knew about users,' said Mr. Schiff, who is the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee."

The calls for political oversight, the Times noted, followed multiple reports that the company "had used the Facebook data to develop methods that it claimed could identify the personalities of individual American voters and influence their behavior" and noted that "the firm's so-called psychographic modeling underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016," even if some were skeptical of its efficacy. 

The media had uncovered a juicy scandal at the intersection of politics and social media. And Washington and London had taken notice. 

Eventually, Zuckerberg testified before a Senate committee, his first appearance before Congress. But instead of a serious inquiry, it turned out more like a circus. Over the course of the hearing, it became clear that most of the senators grilling the tech CEO had no idea how Facebook—or, for that matter, much of the internet—worked at all. They asked clueless questions that could have been answered with a Google search and mostly served to demonstrate how little they understood about the privacy practices they wanted to regulate. But as Reason's Robby Soave noted at the time, that didn't stop at least one from taking the opportunity to attempt to connect Facebook to Russian propaganda efforts, by demanding that Zuckerberg account for context-free print-outs of what appeared to be images taken from Facebook. 

Yet it hardly mattered that the legislators who'd gathered to demand answers from Zuckerberg had no idea what they were talking about: They were determined to bring Facebook under their control. "If Facebook and other online companies will not or cannot fix their privacy invasions, then we are going to have to," Sen. Bill Nelson (D–Fla.) said at the time. "We, the Congress." 

Zuckerberg has since become a fixture in Washington; he made his fifth appearance last week. These appearances have become ritualized performances for both the CEOs and the lawmakers who question them, forums for prepared speeches with conclusions baked in. No one learns much from these faux public trials, but the march to regulation continues apace, often abetted by Facebook, which has taken to saying that some regulation might be necessary, as long as the company gets to help write the rules. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which The New York Times once described as having "thrust Facebook into its biggest crisis ever," had evolved into an all-encompassing, never-ending entanglement amongst America's axis of cultural and political power: big tech, big media, and big government.  

Yet just a few weeks before Zuckerberg's latest, we actually did learn something from a government investigation into the intersection of politics and technology. In early October, the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), a government body that oversees data privacy, finished a yearslong review of the incident that started it all: the Cambridge Analytica scandal. U.K. data privacy laws tend to be more strict than in the U.S., and the ICO has the power to penalize companies and otherwise compel them to take action; it is not inherently sympathetic to corporate interests.

And yet what it found was that the Cambridge Analytica scandal, such that it was, had been blown wildly out of proportion, and had mostly been the result of misunderstandings and hype. 

The dreaded psychographic models they built relied on commonly used, off-the-shelf analytical tools that company leadership had talked up in order to make them sound more powerful than they were. Aside from some minor inquiries, the ICO found no evidence that Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign, nor did they find significant evidence of Russian involvement. The company did maintain lax data security in some instances, with some staffers keeping information in their personal Gmail accounts—although often it was shared through more secure methods as well. 

And the Facebook data trove at the heart of the controversy was largely deleted in 2016 after Facebook requested that Cambridge Analytica do so. The data itself was not directly used in its 2016 election campaign efforts, although it may have indirectly informed some of the company's models. 

The ICO found the company guilty of no illegal behavior. Instead, the report found that Cambridge Analytica was primarily guilty of hype—of overselling its analytical capabilities and the value of its psychographic models and their ability to shape political campaigns. The company's leader, Alexander Nix, had been suspended in 2018 after an undercover video caught him suggesting that bribery and seduction could be used to influence foreign elections; he'd called Cambridge Analytica's voter models their "secret sauce." But as the Financial Times points out, the depth and detail of the company's vaunted voter profiles had been heavily exaggerated. And the company's employees knew what they were selling was bunk: As the ICO report dryly notes, "There appeared to be concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality of their processing." 

Cambridge Analytica wasn't a sinister new way to use social media as mind control. It wasn't a Russian intelligence front group. It wasn't a powerful tool for subverting democracy. It was a scam, run by a shady frontman with a penchant for promotional self-aggrandizement. And it fooled just about everyone, from the right-wing power brokers who funded it to the journalists who covered it to the bumbling politicians who used the scandal as an excuse to wage a political prosecution of some of the nation's largest and most successful companies. 

The Cambridge Analytica story is, at heart, a story of confusion and self-delusion, in which media paranoia and political misunderstandings intersect with right-wing pomposity and empty tech-world hype and hubris. 

The real story wasn't what happened with the company's vaunted models; it was what so many influential figures on every side of the issue thought was happening that wasn't. What many viewed as apocalyptic was in fact ordinary—a confluence of vanities, paranoias, and misunderstandings rather than an elaborate master plan. And if the latest big tech hearing is any indication, these sorts of misunderstandings are going to keep happening, regardless of how the election turns out.

The Cambridge Analytica "scandal," then, is a synecdoche for so much of the Trump era, and the way that mostly unfounded anxieties about elections, technology, and secretive corporate plots have spread across the corridors of American power and cultural influence. In the end, Cambridge Analytica's systems didn't amount to much. They didn't represent what so many powerful people thought they represented. And the tragedy wasn't what so many thought it was; it was what we failed to learn, and the mistakes we are likely to keep repeating as a result.

NEXT: 12 Good Things That Might Happen Today, None of Which Involve Trump or Biden

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  1. But man did the libs ever get triggered. Even after Obama used similar tactics. What a bunch of snowflakes. Wait until tonight when their massive freakout begins anew. Too bad it wasn’t a full moon tonight.

    (fun story, I was sitting in a breakfast place day after election 2016 and listening to the waitress say that Trump was a nazi and her two customers laughing and saying that was fine with them. What a time to be alive)

    1. I’m not sure if I’d describe Obama’s tactics as ‘similar’ so much as almost exactly the same– even inventing the process.

      1. But I admit I’m nitpicking. Almost exactly the same could certainly be describe as similar. And I’m saying “almost exactly the same” because I believe it was the exact same, but I’m sure there were subtle differences that one could point to. I beliece, for instance, in Obama’s case, they had Facebook’s help.

        1. Several US coal mines have still closed, however, driven by competition from cheaper natural gas and state efforts to support renewable energy. Government figures show……Read more

      2. As I said before, I don’t see how “psychographic profiling” is any different than FB, Twitter, Google, and to a lesser degree, Amazon or even CNN’s MO for targeted advertising. I think it’s a stretch to say Obama invented it. Even in a Presidential race, Ron Paul used similar technology to similar effect. If anything, I’d say Obama was just the first to use it successfully in a Presidential race.

        1. I’m using ‘invented it’ in a very narrow way. Obama campaign was (to my knowledge) the first political campaign to “capture the entire social network” (that being facebook) at the time. The implication that I understood was no one had ever done that in an outreach effort. The young woman in the Ted Talk who indicated she had pulled that off while working for the Obama campaign suggested that what they did probably wouldn’t be allowed “today”. That was all before Trump was a glint in the milkman’s eye.

          1. I quit working at shop rite and now I make $65-85 per/h. How? I’m working online! My work didn’t exactly make me happy so I decided to take a chance on ast something new after 4 years it was so hard to quit my day job but now, I couldn’t be happier So i try use.
            Here’s what I do…….WORK 24

          2. Fair enough. Still say Paul did it first but almost accidentally. Obama was the first to really bend it to his will.

    2. Right after the election there was a guy next to me in the self check out lane who started moaning so loud the attendant came over to check on him; all he said was : “I can’t believe he’s president!”

      I want an encore.

      1. The (woman) bar keep at a local tavern told wife and I she was still crying in the morning.
        I want an encore.

  2. 235,000 COVID-19 deaths… 235,000 families lost loved ones to COVID-19… highest infection in a week since the beginning… And Trump claims we’re “rounding the final turn”. freaking POS. He even vowed he would keep the most vulnerable protected. The fool couldn’t even keep himself protected from getting infected. DUMP tRUMP FLU 2020═❥❥═❥❥USA PART TIME JOB.

    1. Woke spam!?!? When did that start?

      1. Nah, it’s a new sarcasmic sock.

      2. It’s trolling for the weak-minded. The username and link are the same as those for the ShopRite scam posts.

  3. The reason Lefties are triggered and anxious about elections is because Trump represents America rejecting Socialism and Communism that Democrats have been incrementally pushing on Americans.

    The Party of slavery is finished and that was clear when Trump won in 2016 and will continue with Trump being reelected in 2020.

    1. If Biden wins will you admit your an inbred, hookworm caring goddamn fucking moron? You live in the part of the country everyone makes fun of and your proud of it cuz your so goddamn inbred and dumb.

      1. You’re trying way too hard.

        1. Not my fault fucksconstituton1789 is an inbred piece of trash

          1. dude you gotta explain hookworm caring.

            1. Yeah, and misspelling “you’re” three times indicates it probably wasn’t a typo.

        2. unreason paid extra for new and old bots to sprinkle their comments section with attacks because Biden will lose.

      2. This is some good irony right here.

      3. How about the both of you keep fighting for liberty no matter who is elected? You might actually have more interests in common than you realize.

  4. This TDS nostalgia is weird. If Cambridge Analytica is the worst/best of the anyone-but-Trump nostalgia, and if Trump’s spending is a worse danger than Biden’s, then TDS is pretty damn lopsided in its effects.

    1. TDS infection goes both ways, supporters and haters alike (I have it! – A mild case… but I’m rounding the corner…)

      1. “TDS infection goes both ways, supporters and haters alike…”

        Your cite was eaten by your stupidity, but your TDS wasn’t.

  5. >>>common to view President Donald Trump’s first term as a tragedy

    maybe some chicks … back east … I’ve enjoyed every fucking day of it, Pete. Drain the swamp.

    1. The betas are a sad lot

    2. Do you often enjoy mass death?

      1. I’m often amazed you’re a real person.

        1. The rightwing echo chamber is a hell of a drug.

          1. DMT is a hell of a drug. Rightwing echo chamber sounds less than stimulating.

      2. death happens every day.

    3. Yours was also my first reaction to that part of the sentence, which fully is:

      “It’s common to view President Donald Trump’s first term as a tragedy, a national meltdown in which democracy itself is under siege from big tech, foreign governments, and other shadowy actors. ”

      Certainly “common” is correct for statists in DC and anyone who believes the MSM. But I don’t see conservatives seeing it as a “tragedy” even though they see “democracy itself is under siege from big tech”. Certainly “Russia” is the excuse for anything negative about Democrats.

      Seems to me Sullum missed the real libertarian story which IMHO is the following. Obama used big data from liberal Google (and others like Facebook) to help win the election. When Republicans also got their hands on user data, and got mad at Facebook for selling it to them (even though that’s their business) instead of giving Democrats millions of dollars in in-kind contributions for free, plus they decided to go after Cambridge Analytica (a foreign firm involved in political consulting).

      The other story, is how these firms are selling our data to foreigners, and how that affects national security. Which is why when the service is free, it’s information about you that’s being bought and sold. No surprise foreign firms like China want to get data on all Americans.

  6. So it’s kind of like the Biden laptop story, then?

    1. Let’s see how many you hook with that one, Fake Chipper.

    2. No.
      But please do attempt to make that case.
      Might be entertaining

    3. …except the laptops exist. And it has been corroborated.

      Other than THOSE small differences, though…

    4. Not quite at all, really. The Biden laptop story is real, and confirmed by the people on the emails. The only question is, did anything illegal occur.

      1. Prying into someone’s laptop and slandering them for months on end sure sounds illegal.

        1. The owner of that shop owned the first laptop as Hunter never picked it back up. And it’s not slander when one of the people receiving the emails indicated that they were quite legitimate.

        2. Nope, that’s been discussed to death. And again, the implication is clear… no denial that any of the data contained therein isn’t legitimate, but that it’s merely ill-gotten.

          Except that it wasn’t ill-gotten. It was 100% legal and above board.

          1. Why did Tucker Carlson decide to back off the story?

            1. Cite missing, shitstain.

        3. You mean like getting tax returns from the IRS?

        4. 1) Slander is a civil issue, not a criminal one.
          2) Merely reporting the facts of the contents of the laptop can never be slander/libel.
          3) There is a concept of abandoned property that appears to be in play here, but the details of when it happened and so forth are critical to resolving if any crime has occurred. I notice that Hunter does not seem to be pursuing this as a crime victim.

          1. I note that Hunter does not seem to be pursuing this.

            1. B-b-but why then did Tucker Carlson stop covering the story ???

              /Tony

  7. > It’s common to view President Donald Trump’s first term as a tragedy, a national meltdown in which democracy itself is under siege from big tech, foreign governments, and other shadowy actors.

    Actually it’s a pretty sad view. Democrats unable to cope with the fact that they managed to find the world’s most reviled candidate. A candidate that pretty much ignored every state between California and New York. Who called everyone living between those two states “deplorables”. The candidate who forget all about the electoral college and so still squeaked out a popular win despite getting squashed when it came to the electoral votes.

    It as an election between two externally focused factions. And the Democrats faction still wants to blame Russia and Facebook and the evil Constitution that had stuff about an electoral college in it.

    1. Fuck off SQRLSY.

    2. I’m an “anybody but Trump” person and I approve ^^^^^^ that message. Hillary blew it due to incompetence. IMHO, the Don is an A-hole, but the Clintons are everything bad about lawyers…. slimey. Pretty sure the Don is still worse, but not by much.
      I’m just hoping for 4-years of MILD incompetence.

      In reality, tRump has seriously hurt the Republican party, about the only thing that can revive it is if Biden wins and goes super left wing. In 2 years you will see the backlash (Republican control Congress).

      1. “I’m an “anybody but Trump” person and I approve ^^^^^^ that message…”

        We hope your TDS leads to a slow painful death for you.

        1. I hope you receive the help you need.

          1. I hope you also die a slooooow painful death from your TDS, shitstain.

      2. >>In reality, tRump has seriously hurt the Republican party

        dude (R) was a fucking nightmare *before* T …

      3. In 2 years you will see the backlash (Republican control Congress).

        And what good does that do? Reelect those “conservatives” that only seem to conserve whatever the left hacked up? There are only three in that party, so far , that took on the status quo, Reagan, Gingrich and Trump, and Trump’s not really a Republican.

  8. “The story, in other words, was a perfect storm of Trump-era panics and paranoias. And it was almost entirely hokum. ”

    Ironic, given that the panics and paranoias were ALSO entirely hokum.

    Russia collusion? Jesus. And you fucking writers BELIEVED it! Thoroughly.

    1. No one at Reason beleived it. Just because Reason reported and commented on a mass delusion does not mean they believed it. Do you get out much? Still locked away in your momma’s basement?

      1. So you don’t read the articles?

        …or much of anything else, it seems.

        Moron.

      2. Whether they believed it or not, they called for its continuation to the point where it was tearing apart innocent families, didn’t stop then, and jumped on the second bandwagon to roll by.

  9. It’s common to view President Donald Trump’s first term as a tragedy

    Really? It looked like a comedy to me. That national meltdown that the left has been in has provided me with much entertainment for the last four years. I look forward to another four years of meltdown.

  10. The US has been complicit in coups, assassinations, wars etc for decades. We shouldn’t be surprised when others return the favor. “Sowing discontent, division and confusion” on social media doesn’t seem to be worth freaking out about.

    1. Tell that to the Democrats. They’ve been doing so for, well, four years now.

      1. The GOP has controlled the WH and Senate the past four years so how could Dems have been doing it? Both parties are guilty. If you’re referring to impeachment that isn’t a coup.

        1. If you’re referring to impeachment that isn’t a coup.

          And when somebody like Putin wins 98% of the popular vote for his nth term, it isn’t a dictatorship or an oligarchy, it’s an election.

  11. The mindless bots that believe this very type of propaganda are going to swing this election to biden.

  12. Do u know secreat this post and…READ MORE

  13. So to sum up: reality was irrelevant because left wingers needed to build a narrative justifying their freakout.

    Got it.

  14. I almost forgot Bannon was a Mercer puppet. Behind each and every one of these rightwing goobers is an “eccentric” billionaire. The Koch brother has Dave Rubin. Ben Shapiro’s sugar daddies are pretty much the panoply of billionaire conservatives. Reason has Koch. It’s all so astroturf. And you people think you’re the voice of the people. How cute.

    1. You’d think billionaires didn’t tend to support the Dems quite a bit more than the GOP is you listened to Tony.

      True, it’d be the least idiotic thing you’d think if that were the case…

      1. Our talking heads aren’t each subsidized by a billionaire like yours are.

        I’d point out the irony of competing in the marketplace of ideas with billionaire cash, but that is kind of the whole point of you guys.

        1. Soros, Steyer, Bloomberg, Dorsey, Zuckerberg, Gates, Pinchar,… “your” party is controlled by billionaires.

  15. Poor unreason.

    1. Poor inbred fucksconsititution1789

      1. brevity assures fewer errors.

        1. Good one!

          1. And more obvious idiocy.

  16. It was a scam, run by a shady frontman with a penchant for promotional self-aggrandizement.

    Now do Fusion GPS, Facebook, Five-Thirty-Eight, Twitter, Google, Amazon, CNN, MSNBC…

    1. All owned by shady megacorporations.

      1. Once you get your GED in your 20s or so, you might consider that ‘investing’ in lotto tickets is not a good retirement plan.

  17. Ever_person says me about this post..READ MORE

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