Cambridge Analytica: What we think you should know…


In the recent past, Cambridge Analytica has made news across many platforms, thanks to a a three-part series titled ‘Data, Democracy and Dirty Tricks’ aired on Britain’s Channel 4 News that exposed how the right-leaning digital marketing firm targets voters with propaganda to influence their voting decisions.

So how much do we know about Cambridge Analytica? According to Wikipedia, Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm which combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process.

It was started in 2013 as an offshoot of the SCL Group. The company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes.The firm maintains offices in London, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

The company’s (till last week) CEO is Alexander Nix. Nix had reported that CA was involved in 44 US political races in 2014. In 2015, it performed data analysis services for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. In 2016, CA worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as well as the Leave.EU-campaign for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

CA’s role in those campaigns has been controversial and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries. Political scientists question CA’s claims about the effectiveness of its methods of targeting voters.

In March 2018, multiple media outlets broke news of Cambridge Analytica’s business practices. The New York Times and The Observer reported on the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data breach, in which the company used for political purposes personal information acquired about Facebook users, by an external researcher who claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.

Shortly afterwards, Channel 4 News aired undercover investigative videos showing Nix boasting about using prostitutes, bribery sting operations, and honey traps to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research, and saying that the company “ran all of (Donald Trump’s) digital campaign”.

In response to the media reports, the Information Commissioner of the UK pursued a warrant to search the company’s servers. Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform, saying that it had been deceived. On March 23, 2018, the British High Court granted the Information Commissioner’s Office a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices.

The data about the 50 million Facebook users were acquired from 270,000 Facebook users who shared the data with the app “thisisyourdigitallife”.

By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app information about the friend network of those people, which resulted in information about 50 million users. The app developer breached Facebook’s terms of service by giving the data to Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica’s executives said in 2018 that the company had also worked in more than 200 elections around the world, including in Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India, and Argentina.

CA ran campaigns in secret during Kenya’s 2013 and 2017 elections. In 2018, a CA employee said that his predecessor at the company had been found dead in his hotel room in Kenya while working on Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 campaign.

The company claimed on its website to have conducted a survey of 47,000 Kenyans during the 2013 elections in order to understand “key national and local political issues, levels of trust in key politicians, voting behaviours/intentions, and preferred information channels”. After the revelations in March 2018, where CA staff boasted of their power in Kenya, opposition figures called for an investigation.

Norman Magaya, an official of the National Super Alliance, accused CA and the ruling Jubilee Party party”: “This was a criminal enterprise which clearly wanted to subvert the will of the people – through manipulation, through propaganda,” he told the BBC, as he called on both the US and UK to act to assist the investigation. “There must be criminal culpability.”

The ruling Jubilee Party downplayed CA’s role, saying it had hired the firm’s parent company, to assist with branding. In India, Cambridge Analytica performed an “in-depth electorate analysis” during the 2010 elections to the Bihar Legislative Assembly

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