Big Data Has Changed the Game
We have entered into a brave new world in campaign messaging.
Electoral politics as we know them will never be the same. Thanks to to social media and the power of modern data analysis, campaigns are now able to build detailed models of potential voters right down to the individual. This information is then used to create highly targeted messaging that is tailored to a specific psychological profile. The data that made all of this possible has been steadily accumulating over the last 15 years, and was almost entirely voluntarily submitted. Knowingly or not, we have all been a part of the survey.
Before anyone was even able to recognize it, the change had occurred. Several key players made this transformation possible, and their work will be painstakingly studied and copied for years to come. But there is absolutely no turning back now. The age of Big Data in politics is here to stay.
It all started out innocently enough. The formula was discovered inadvertently at a highly unlikely location, the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University, by then PhD student Michael Kosinski. This massive shift, it turns out, is the result of a tragic accident of history. From VICE:
Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.”…known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they are likely to behave. The “Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.
What Kosinski did was create a Facebook app that was essentially an online survey and applied the principles of the “BIg Five” to the results, producing a personality profile that the user could opt to share with researchers. Before long, he had accumulated “largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.” From this data, he had developed a highly sophisticated method of predicting human behavior.
Facebook “Likes” would later be made private, meaning only friends can see them. But not so for professional data collectors, who are employed by marketing firms with massive budgets who pay dearly for this data. They were beginning to notice these developments, and their potential for exploitation.
The Inevitable Happens
Kosinski recalled in early 2014 being approached by a mysterious individual inquiring about his methods. He would not reveal his intentions, just that he was contacting him on behalf of a Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), a shadow company who, thanks to a convoluted corporate structure, is largely untraceable. He declined his substantial offer, but this gave him an uneasy feeling.
He was right to be concerned.
He later discovered that SCL had spun off a new company, Cambridge Analytica, whose focus was “innovative political marketing or micro-targeting”. The company was registered by the very man who had approached Kosinski the previous year (who has since changed his name). In December 2015 it was discovered that the organization, who was in no way was affiliated with Cambridge University, had in fact reverse-engineered and copied Kosinski’s methodology, and began to market it for use in election campaigns. Their first major score was in the U.K. with the Leave.EU campaign, who commissioned their services around that same time. When the voters there voted for Brexit, suddenly the world took notice of the company and their unique insights.
Britain would prove to be the test case for the real prize: the U.S. election. In September 2016, team Trump announced that they were bringing Cambridge Analytics aboard. In a presentation to the The Concordia Summit, Alexander Nix, CEO of the company, candidly laid out the companies’ platform, outlining how data analytics could be used to gauge far more accurate metrics than any currently available:
“At Cambridge,” he said, “we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The hall is captivated. According to Nix, the success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.
Highly targeted political campaigning has been around as long as politics has, it is the nature of the beast. But what this method does is it goes beyond a person’s political beliefs and plays directly to their emotions, which research shows provides a much deeper connection to the voter. So, for example, if you are more susceptible to scare tactics they might show you images of crime, if you are more of a traditionalist, you would see more of a values-oriented message, and so forth. Take this example for instance:
Nix shows how psychographically categorized voters can be differently addressed, based on the example of gun rights, the 2nd Amendment: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun.” An image on the left shows the hand of an intruder smashing a window. The right side shows a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, clearly shooting ducks: “Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”
The presentation is stunning to look back on now. They are literally laying out the strategy Trump’s campaign would ride to victory less than 2 months later. While Nix provided the campaign with the data and the tools necessary to carry this out, executing the plan required another set of talents altogether.
The Golden Boy
When Trump’s campaign was initially set up, they did not have much of a digital footprint. That all changed when Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and most trusted adviser took over the campaign. A charming, well-connected businessman in his own right, he was able to leverage tech contacts which were previously unavailable to them. Kushner, more than anyone, is seen as the man who “brought Silicon Valley to Trump Tower”. This was how he came to find Cambridge Analytica. From Business2Community:
Kushner reportedly leveraged his Silicon Valley connections and asked for the best digital marketers in the world. Once the Republican nomination was nailed on, Kushner took over the campaign. His tests had been done and their concepts proven. Now he needed to find a way to scale these tests up to a nationally successful level.
Kushner got to work implementing the blueprint laid out for him by Nix. He hired a staff of around 100 people and set up shop in a low key office in San Antonio. He brought his keen business acumen along with him, implementing lean practices all throughout the operation. In this way he was able to get the absolute maximum value from his team, and use every available resource
Kushner’s approach resembled the disruption of a traditional industry for which Silicon Valley has become synonymous with. They used outsourcing to data partners like Cambridge Analytica to map key policy issues by geography. He understood the online world in a way the traditional media folks didn’t. He managed to assemble a presidential campaign on a shoestring using new technology and won. That’s a big deal. Remember all those articles about how they had no money, no people, organizational structure? Well, they won, and Jared ran it.
Proving a Negative
The research of Cambridge produced one very unusual observation: the power of proving a negative. Another way of saying this is that the major advantage this method offers is not persuasion in favor of one candidate, but rather dissuasion of those who may support the opposing candidate. In this way, the Trump campaign made a major focus of their strategy to suppress the vote for Hillary.
The so-called voter suppression plan is to spread internet memes on Facebook that highlight Clinton’s various transgressions against targeted voters, drawing on her career and the hacked documents provided to Wikileaks by the Russian government. Most of this ground has been well trod over the last eighteen months, whether references to Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator” in the 1990s (she’s apologized), her husband’s sexual improprieties, or her family foundation’s connections to corporate interests.
Smearing your opponent is nothing new, but by playing to specific emotions, it becomes a much more insidious approach. No one can argue that it was not effective, although the full extent of its impact may never fully be known. We do know that the highly targeted “suppression” campaign on social media did in fact happen. From VICE:
This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.
Data Driven Future
The election of Donald J. Trump has laid bare any notion that the old rules still apply. This is an epochal shift, the kind recognizable only after the fact. We don’t know the long term implications of just what this means for our society, but I worry about the potential for its misuse.
One thing is certain, the Pandora’s box has been opened. We are here to stay. All of us together have liked and shared our way to this brave new world we now inhabit.