Here at Chainsaw, we love neuromarketing. We also realize that it presents a moral dilemma. And no company is doing more to illustrate the dangers of the dark side than Cambridge Analytica (CA).
Details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, involving Facebook, Breitbart, Brexit, and the Mercer family, among many others, are still being revealed. It’s already clear, however, that most of the core strategies CA used in the Brexit and US elections are as old as psychology, and perhaps democracy itself: tribalism, fear tactics, using paid propaganda to undermine independent media, and slinging mud at the opponent. We’ve been here before. Even the USA’s Founding Fathers printed anonymous pamphlets to impugn their political opponents.
The real difference is the medium—social media—which has become the message, in more ways than one. It’s well known, for example, that consumers react differently to friends than advertisements. We’re four times more likely to buy a product if it’s recommended by an acquaintance, and 92% more likely to consider their referrals. The rise of social media has made it possible for advertisements to mimic a real human connection, by allowing advertisers and political campaigns to create online accounts that masquerade as real people.
Data mining, via Facebook quizzes or (more commonly) by marketing tech services like Acxiom, also allow unprecedented access to personal information that that can be used to create psychometric profiles. “For example,” wrote one group of researchers, “users who liked the ‘Hello Kitty’ brand tended to be high on ‘Openness’ and low on ‘Conscientiousness,’ ‘Agreeableness,’ and ‘Emotional Stability [i.e., neuroticism].’” Cambridge Analytica founder, Alexander Nix, notes that someone who scores high in neuroticism can be effectively targeted with ads that depict crime, in particular home break-ins.
Only politicians who hire Cambridge Analytica can protect you, your family, and your guns!
You can see how a neurotic voter’s subconscious cognitive weakness might be leveraged with a certain stripe of political ads.
Advertisers and influencers have always been paid to herd human brains, using the many morally ambiguous tools of the trade. From buxom women in tiny bikinis to “four out of five doctors recommend Camels,” these implements of suggestion have always raised ethical eyebrows. But these new tools, created by the Internet age, are so powerful—and so poorly understood, even by the people who wield them—that we should pay extra attention.
Cambridge Analytica Emerges from the Shadows
Cambridge Analytica (CA) is just one of dozens of companies lurking in that gray area between data collection and manipulation of the masses. (Peter Thiel’s Palantir and London-based VisualDNA provide similar services.) CA’s parent company, SCL (Strategic Communications Laboratories), is a London-based “global election management agency” that provides “analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide, [and has] conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries” since 1994.
The CA website sounds like it was cut and pasted from some saucy, Millennial-driven growth-hacking copy, circa 2015: “Every campaign is measured and evaluated: we execute a truly quantifiable approach to engagement, which ensures maximum efficiency of spending.”
On the ground, it was a little messier. In Latvia, for example, SCL ran a campaign to stoke tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russian residents: “In essence, Russians were blamed for unemployment and other problems affecting the economy,” noted one internal document. Their candidate won the election, but the campaign fueled violence and division as ethnonationalist sentiment spiked. In the 2007 Nigerian elections, SCL convinced opposition voters to simply not vote, or vote for candidates that couldn’t win. This was also a big win for SCL, but Nigeria’s economic growth has since collapsed.
Some background: SCL is run by Nigel Oakes, an Eton-educated playboy who was once engaged to the Queen’s cousin, Lady Helen Windsor. He later worked at the conservative Tories’ top advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, and then created SCL to get military contracts in Afghanistan, to win “hearts and minds.” Oakes now lives in the UAE, near associate Erik Prince. His most famous quote, from a 1992 trade journal, and since repeated in just about every story about SCL, reads: “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler… We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.”
Promises that subliminal advertising would get those gears turning in Afghanistan got SCL its first gig, a lucrative military contract.
In 2013, Nigel’s school chum and SCL director Alexander Nix started Cambridge Analytica, to target the US market. Their funding came from the Mercer family, which made their billions in computer science and the stock market, and who are close friends of Brexit enthusiast Nigel Farage. The Mercers introduced Nix to Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, who connected them with Kellyanne Conway, Ted Cruz, and eventually, Donald Trump.
Nix began the campaign by investing $800,000 in an app, “This Is Your Digital Life,” created by Soviet-born and US-based researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, in 2014. The app used quizzes and data collection (such as “likes”) to gather psychometric data on Facebook users. Then, they used that harvested data to microtarget key groups with election ads. Those who downloaded the app—about 300,000 Facebook users—earned a small fee for giving up their privacy. Most were unaware that they were also allowing the app to collect data from their combined 87 million friends.
After they collated this huge amount of psychological information, they combined it with publicly available data and used it to target potential swing voters with different types of advertisements. They allegedly tested phrases like “drain the swamp,” “deep state” and “build the wall” for use in future campaigns. They ran banner, Facebook, and Google ads. They optimized advertorials supporting their candidates for the Google search algorithm, stacking the front-page results. Other paid political ads were disguised as appealing Facebook groups, featuring symbols and phrases that tested well with target voters. These produced humorous memes and were staffed by friendly social-media trolls that reinforced campaign messaging in the comments sections.
“Instead of standing in the public square and saying what you think,” explains former CA employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, “you are whispering into the ear of each and every voter. And you may be whispering one thing to this voter and another thing to another voter.”
After winning both Brexit and the US Presidential elections, surprising old-school wonks unfamiliar with this new type of ad campaign, SCL and CA declared victory. They basked briefly in their hard-earned success, until investigations into election tactics began making the news. Facebook, in an effort to deflect criticism, said Kogan had lied, that he had misrepresented his work as academic research. Kogan argued that his contract did allow him to use the data commercially.
This revelation was followed by Wylie saying that Steve Bannon oversaw the collection and manipulation of the data himself. Nix was (sort of) suspended. A congressional investigation was convened to look into the matter.
Meanwhile, most of the Facebook users who were tricked into giving up their friends’ data have forgotten about the whole thing. They may even still be sharing memes, and “friending” people they don’t know in real life.
So it goes.
Kogan was “Soviet born”? Was Russia involved?
It’s easy to conflate Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 Presidential election with alleged Russian meddling supporting the same candidate. Were they connected? Maybe, but not through Kogan. And so far, no evidence is publicly available that suggests Russia and SCL are connected in any way.
But! If this whole mess does tie into the Russian troll farms in some way, and it’s all revealed by, say, the Mueller investigation, that will mean some next-level neuromarketing research will become available. And, we’ll probably be able to squeeze another blog or three out of it. Stay tuned.
Did Cambridge Analytica Break the Law?
Just look at this Shutterstock graphic. Someone must really think Cambridge Analytica will be punished.
Once again, the short answer is “maybe.”
Entrapping political targets with Ukrainian prostitutes, for example, is illegal, as are bribery and blackmail. It’s also possible that they violated UK data privacy laws and boilerplate Facebook contracts, who knows. There are lawyers on it.
But the organization’s truly nefarious activities, which you should understand, fear, and perhaps adapt for your company’s next social media campaign, are all pretty much legal—and you marketing pros out there already employ variations of most of them. Besides, using propaganda to throw a foreign election is the “I Can’t Drive 55” of international relations—and if you’re a citizen UK or USA, well, we’re all basically Sammy Hagar, and the cops have been letting us get away with it for years.
So, instead of focusing on crime and punishment, we think it’s more important to understand what happened, and why it worked so incredibly well.
Click here for Part II of this blog. We go into more detail about some of the techniques Cambridge Analytica and SCL have been using.