If you believe what you read, the Cambridge Analytica story is a blockbuster. It is a tale of intrigue and data breaches and manipulation on a mass scale, the sort of thing ripped from the type of paperback spy thriller you discard without a thought after a plane trip — except real. But if you ask anyone from the world Cambridge Analytica tried to inhabit — the highly competitive world of data consulting — about what Cambridge was offering campaigns, the story that emerges is very different. It is transformed into a story about our increasingly credulous media — apparently incapable of understanding how Facebook, the very entity that drives so much of their traffic, actually works — and how journalists are eager to believe the worst about anything, even humdrum data mining, in the age of Donald Trump.
“This is the real world, not a spy novel. And in the real world, what Cambridge Analytica was promising simply doesn’t work,” said Republican data consultant Patrick Ruffini. “Their role was downgraded on every major campaign they’ve worked on, including the Trump campaign and the Cruz campaign, when it was clear they couldn’t deliver on what they were selling. These concerns were well known in Republican circles prior to 2016.”
“At the end of the day, Cambridge offered nothing more and nothing less than a standard data science program with a brilliant marketing campaign wrapped around it,” Ruffini said. “That hype has now caught up to them.”
The world of campaign consulting is full of hype. It is designed to offer those desperate for an edge on their opponent the promise of a silver bullet, and a consultancy willing to go to any lengths — including all those things you’d like to do, but can’t — in order to win. This creates opportunities for shysters and flimflam artists, who create impressive presentations but ultimately take a lot of money in order to fail upon delivery. But that’s okay, if they play their cards right with the correct journalist, they’ll still get their Politico plaudits and their headline about creating the Republican internet. And the rubes will keep rolling in.
“Cambridge Analytica is completely inept,” another Republican campaign consultant said. “I refused to hire them because after the sales pitch in the lovely British accent, Nix couldn’t sufficiently answer any questions or satisfactorily back up any of his fanciful claims. I concluded that he was a snake oil salesman incapable of helping anyone win or lose an election.”
The unfortunate situation here is that the latest rube to buy this snake oil appears to be special counsel Robert Mueller, firm in his commitment to investigating whatever’s trending on Twitter. According to ABC News, his probe has already been asking questions and intends to investigate the relationship between Cambridge Analytica, the Republican National Committee, and the Trump campaign.
That relationship, according to multiple sources, is simple: Cambridge was inherited from the Cruz campaign, failed to deliver on its promises early on, and was dismissed in September 2016, with a preference for the RNC’s own digital game and Brad Parscale.
Another day of people taking credit for @realDonaldTrump 's victory. So incredibly false and ridiculous. Let them say that under oath. Just an overblown sales pitch. Here is what I said about all this to 60 minutes. #MAGAhttps://t.co/ThqNzSXVa3
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) March 20, 2018
According to another Republican data consultant familiar with Cambridge, this decision was an easy one that should have been made earlier.
“We all knew these guys were BS artists. Everyone who was in the room with Alexander Nix could tell that, and these videos are not a surprise. He was playing a part as an MI6 agent, and now he’s taking credit for various things in Trump world as if he was an International Man of Mystery, when he had nothing to do with it. Just because he says he did all these things for Trump doesn’t make it true — and as far as I know, they did virtually nothing.”
Who Gathered Your Facebook Data?
Facebook’s third-party API was introduced originally in order to create more of a social hub and serve user desires to see whatever their friends were doing all the time on everything. The Obama campaign, and of course many other Republican campaigns, made use of it — the Mitt Romney campaign used it far less so in 2012, and plenty of journalists at the time suggested this was a factor in his loss. No one complained, the Obama team was a bunch of freaking geniuses, and Sasha Issenberg wrote a whole book about it.
In 2014, a Cambridge researcher named Aleksandr Kogan developed his own app, still under the same rules about third-party API, that he claimed to be using for psychological research. It was approved at the time, and he used it to collect data on about 300,000 individuals — but then branch off to their other connections and friends, gathering up information from about 50 million individuals in total.
In spring 2014, Facebook decided to change the API rules, allowing you to ignore your friend’s score on Candy Crush. They announced a grace period for apps where they had to rebuild and reapply through their approval system, a grace period that applied to Kogan’s app.
What Kogan did then is where Facebook is frustrated: He turned around and sold the data he collected, which was obviously not what he represented about his intentions for the information. This fact was first reported in The Guardian in December of 2015 — when Cambridge Analytica was working for the Ted Cruz campaign.
For his part, Kogan maintains he’s being scapegoated in all of this, including dismissing the importance of the data collected:
Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, who provided the data, dismissed on Wednesday Cambridge Analytica’s assertions that the information was ‘incredibly accurate.’ Kogan, who gathered the data by running a survey app on Facebook, also said he was being made a scapegoat by the social media firm and Cambridge Analytica. Both companies have blamed Kogan for alleged data misuse.
Once Facebook saw that Guardian report in 2015, they entered into a negotiation where ultimately Cambridge agreed to destroy the data they had, and certified that fact. So-called whistleblower Christopher Wylie — who was not even employed by Cambridge at this point — now claims they were still using this data for the Trump campaign in 2016, despite Cambridge’s claims to the contrary.
But while Cambridge has agreed to a forensic audit to prove that they no longer have this data — an audit that’s on hold, as they’re currently being investigated by the British government on a number of counts — it’s telling that Wylie has refused such an audit. Judge that refusal for yourself, especially considering that some consultants believe entities other than Cambridge may have retained this data (although its usefulness would be diminishing with age).
“No one really knows how many people out there in the marketing world already have all of this because they just kept their mouths shut and never got caught,” said one Republican data consultant. “It’s silly to think that the Obama people don’t have the data they used back in 2012, before these changes.”
Was Cambridge a Factor in 2016?
Setting that fight between Facebook and Cambridge and Wylie aside, the real question that should matter in the context of American politics is: Was Cambridge even a significant factor in the 2016 election? As Ruffini wrote in a post on Medium:
Aspects of Cambridge’s use of the Facebook data — not to mention the growing revelations about the rest of its business — are troubling. It’s unclear exactly how the data was used, but we know two things: the Trump campaign was not among its users, and the end product Cambridge was using the dataset to build, personality-based targeting, has been universally and spectacularly panned by a range of ex-Cambridge clients. This could mean that while Facebook’s data might be able to tell us what car you’ll buy or which candidate you’ll vote for, it still can’t divine your personality or tell your secrets.
Tim Miller, a Republican campaign consultant who worked with Jeb Bush in the 2016 cycle and has done work with Facebook, said the firm’s work simply didn’t live up to their promises.
“The people I respect in campaign circles didn’t respect Cambridge, didn’t view them as real,” Miller said. “The Cruz campaign had the best data-focused campaign that we’ve seen, and they barely used Cambridge for that. The standard Republican operating procedure turned out to work much better. I’ve said every negative thing in the world about Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner, but they had a very successful and innovative approach to Facebook and they pushed Cambridge aside.”
‘The Juicero For Politics’
That’s the amazing part of this story: How can a data product so “spectacularly panned” also turn out to be the secret sauce that elevated Donald Trump to the White House? The answer is: It wasn’t, and Cambridge’s competitors knew it at the time.
“They’re like the spam you get in your email, just eat this one thing and it’ll cure your diabetes,” one Republican data consultant said. “But the whole idea of a psychographic profile was ridiculous from the start. They couldn’t really tell if someone was neurotic or anything — everyone who saw that who knew what they were claiming didn’t take it seriously. Not many campaigns ended up using them and the people who did, it was just trying to curry favor with the Mercers. Most of the useful material is publicly available information anyway. So you know someone’s neurotic — now what? This jumped the shark in the same way so many other things did — it’s Juicero for politics.”
With the façade of Russia collusion crumbling away, a new conspiracy theory is needed to explain why Hillary Clinton isn’t president. It can’t possibly be that her nomination and her campaign — itself dependent on a massive data-driven social media targeting effort and even an internal algorithm named Ada — was simply wrong about the country, requiring a reorientation and reevaluation of the Democratic Party’s processes and priorities. No, there must be some other explanation.
One constant repeated line among Republican consultants is that while Facebook may deserve some blame for failing to explain itself sufficiently, they face the challenge of doing so in an environment where Cambridge Analytica becomes an excuse for every complaint about the social platform, even if it’s a drop in the bucket.
“People all thought of it as whatever, Obama had done the same thing in 2012 via an official campaign app, and they got praised up, down, and sideways for what they did as being ingenious and innovative … There was zero outrage about them after 2012 — they were hailed as geniuses. There was no outrage having Eric Schmidt set up the whole basis for the Hillary campaign,” a Republican data consultant said. “This is only because Trump won and they’re looking for an excuse about 2016.”
“The media doesn’t want to blame themselves, liberals don’t want to blame Hillary, so this checks all the boxes for the boogeyman,” Miller said. “It’s easy to make Cambridge into masters of the dark arts, but the evidence isn’t there … It’s really about finding anything to avoid blaming the voters.”