Is Cambridge Analytica the Liberal Party's 2019 Trump card?

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Can big data and psychometrics save the Liberal Party and its beleaguered boss?

The big data company that  helped steal the U.S. election for Donald Trump is now in Australia meeting with the Liberal Party, reports Melanie McCartney.

The British company Cambridge Analytica (CA) has boasted that their psychometric data methods helped win the Brexit campaign as well as the successful election of President Trump. Spreading out around the world, CA registered in Australia sometime before last year's Federal election last year, though it hasn’t yet lodged any financial disclosures in this country. CA has registered an Australian office at a property that is currently being redeveloped in Sydney, in the beachside suburb of Maroubra. The CEO of CA, Alexander Nix and their Head of Product, Matt Oczkowski have been in the country this week for Association for Data-driven Marketing & Advertising (ADMA), as guest speakers at a data analytics conference. Interestingly, they met with Liberal Party officials for a dinner on Thursday, including Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan.

In 2008, when Dr David Stillwell and Dr Michal Kosinski were students at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, they launched a Facebook application called MyPersonality app.

The research focused on five personality traits, known as OCEAN

  1. Openness (how open are you to new experiences?)
  2. Conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?)
  3. Extroversion (how sociable are you?)
  4. Agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?)
  5. Neuroticism (are you easily upset?)

They asked Facebook users psychometric questions such as these as well as psychological questions. This was done with a test called “The Big 5 Test” and they asked users permission to use their Facebook profiles for their research. Users were given their personality profile in return and 40 per cent of users agreed to share their Facebook profile data with them.

They expected maybe a few dozen users to fill in the questionnaire, but they ended up getting over a million responses. Their data set, combining the psychometric scores with Facebook profiles, was the largest ever to be collected.

Over the next four years, they measured the OCEAN data and compared these with other data points, such as Facebook “likes,” content shared and where they lived. In 2012, Dr Kosinski reported that with as few as 68 “likes” he was able to predict things such as whether the user was a Democratic or Republican supporter with 85% accuracy. With constant refining and testing of this model, Dr Kosinski was soon able to evaluate a personality with just 70 Facebook likes, learning more about the person than what the person’s friends knew about them.

A couple of weeks after this, Facebook changed “likes” so that they were private by default. This doesn’t stop data collectors, many apps and online quizzes today still requiring access to your private data before you can even take the personality tests. If you want to evaluate yourself based on your Facebook “likes” I have provided links at the end of the article for Dr Kosinski's website and a link for an OCEAN questionnaire. The original project has finished, as such, but it is still open for research; you can even find Australia's Monash University on there as a collaborator.   

Dr Kosinski realised that it wasn’t just about Facebook “likes” or even Facebook but that we also reveal things about ourselves when we’re not online. Our smartphone, he concluded, is in itself a psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously. He worried what his research would mean in reverse and that, essentially, he had invented a people search engine that could possibly cause harm, rather than the original intentions of psychological research.

In 2014, Dr Kosinski was approached by a lecturer from Cambridge University’s psychology department, Dr Alexsandr Kogan. Dr Kogan, on behalf of a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) wanted access to the MyPersonality app.

SCL was founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, a former Saatchi & Saatchi ad man with a penchant for psychology and behavioural profiling. He also established the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group to understand and potentially change people’s opinions in 1989. SCL has been involved in elections in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. It has also worked for the UK Ministry of Defence, the U.S. state Department, Sandia and NATO. It states on its websites that its methodology is approved purely because of its involvement with the latter, not anything to do with their success rate or ethics. Cambridge Analytica (CA) is an offshoot of SCL and was founded in July 2014.

In the 1990s, Mr Oakes employed two respected psychometrics professors, Professor Adrian Furnham and Professor Barrie Gunter. Both psychologists say that they were used by Mr Oakes to build credibility for his group.

Professor Furnham wrote in an email:

‘I believe he is inappropriately using my name and reputation to further his career. He was unreliable and Prof. Gunter and I severed links with him.'

Professor Gunter went further:

‘Adrian and I were  running our own small company providing consultancy services. Nigel made contact with us while he was working for the event division of Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as we were concerned Behavioural Dynamics was simply the name of a company he founded. Nigel didn’t have any qualifications in psychology. To have credibility he needed an association with bona fide psychologists, which is part of the reason that he brought us on board. But we found that no matter how hard we tried to rein him in, he would make all kinds of claims that we felt that we couldn’t substantiate, and that is why we stopped working for him.'    

In 2015, the Guardian reported that SCL found out about Dr Kosinski’s method from Dr Kogan in early 2014.

After Dr Kogan was turned down by Dr Kosinski, he established his own company called Global Science Research Ltd in May 2014. It also reported that he began working with SCL to deliver a 'large research project' in the United States, His stated aim was to get as close to every U.S. Facebook user into their dataset as he could. He used Mechanical Turk (MTurk), which is Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, to access Facebook profiles. He recruited MTurk users, by paying them around a dollar to take a personality questionnaire that also gave access to their Facebook profiles. He promised that their Facebook data would 'only be used for research purposes' and would remain 'anonymous and safe'.

Some complained that he was violating MTurk terms of service. 'They want you to log into Facebook and then download a bunch of your information', was one complaint at the time. Dr Kogan also captured all of the data of each MTurk users’ friends and, at that time, Facebook users had an average of 340 friends each.

This data was then used to generate models of their personalities using the OCEAN scale.

Within a just a few months, Dr Kogan’s business partner gloated on LinkedIn that their company

'... owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States - for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles.'

Dr Kogan was unable to explain by email where all of the data came from as he was restricted by various confidentiality agreements and said that SCL was no longer a client. After Dr Kosinski read the Guardian reports, he believed that Dr Kogan replicated his measurement tool and that he had sold it to SCL. Interestingly, Dr Kogan changed his name not long after this and is now known as Dr Spectre.

In November 2015, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was supporting the “Leave European Union” campaign, he announced that it had commissioned CA to support its online campaign. The result, as we now know, is that Britain is leaving the EU. A record number of Google searches shortly after the polls had closed asking "What happens if we leave the EU?" suggests many people didn’t know why they voted to leave or what the consequences of their vote meant.

Mr Nix describes their marketing success as being based on three elements:

  1. behavioural science using the OCEAN model;
  2. big data analysis; and
  3. ad targeting.

CA buys personal data from places like land registries, automobile data, shopping data, loyalty card data, club memberships, magazines that you read and what places of worship that you attend. They also use “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. There are data brokers such as Acxiom and Experian in the U.S., for example, where you can get almost any personal data you desire for a price. If you wanted to know where Indian women live for example, you can just buy it, phone numbers included. CA can then add this data to the electoral rolls of the Republican party, alongside their OCEAN and social media data.

'We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America-220 million people,' Mr Nix boasted.

Which was exactly what Dr Kosinski had feared.


'They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT', was a telling tweet by then Presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the 18th August 2016.

Robert Mercer is a billionaire that started out financially backing Ted Cruz in the presidential race, but when Cruz dropped out, he supported Mr Trump to the tune of $13.5 million — Trump’s biggest donor.

Mercer started out his career with IBM as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He is credited with “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing — a science that went on to be key in developing today’s use of artificial intelligence. He later became CEO of Renaissance Technologies — a hedge fund that makes its money through algorithms on the financial markets.

Nick Patterson, a British cryptographer, described how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer:

“There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.”

One of its funds, Medallion, manages its employees’ money. It is the most successful of its type in the world. It has generated $US55 billion so far.

Mr Mercer uses his money to fund such things as climate change denialist think tank The Heartland Institute and rightwing news site Breitbart News. In fact, it was $US10 million of his own funding that enabled Steve Bannon, who is now President Trump’s chief strategist, to set up Breitbart News. Mr Bannon was previously a CA board member and gave up this role as well as his executive chairmanship with Breitbart News upon becoming Trump’s chief strategist. Mr Mercer also has a $US10 million stake in CA.

Mr Nix has explained that most of Donald Trump’s messaging during his election campaign was data driven. CA divided the US population into 32 personality types and focused on just 17 states. They discovered that a preference for cars being made in the US for example, was a pretty good indication that they were a potential Trump voter. Similar tactics were used with gun ownership on the series “House of Cards” in season four. The episode focused on government “terrorism” surveillance data being used to influence gun-toting voters opinions, for their own means.

Liberal Party federal director Tony Nutt resigned from his position this week, on the eve of a report that investigated last year’s dismal Liberal Party election campaign.

Journalist Byron Kaye, tweeted that, a week before Mr Nutt quit, he told him that the Australian Federal Government was planning to use ‘Trump’s big data consultant’. CA had it’s eyes on US Government contracts in a quite a few departments, including Defense, while Mr Bannon was on the board, before the election win. In February, SCL or CA finalised a US$500,000 contract with the Department of Homeland Security, this had been in the works since before the election. CA even offers radicalisation services for terrorists. Former national security (NSC) adviser to Trump, Michael Flynn has also been an adviser for SCL in the past. Mr Flynn has been accused of Russian connections and conflicts of interest. It is also of interest that Mr Bannon has just "stepped down" from his position on the NSC.  

With Mr Tehan attending the dinner on Thursday and Australia’s defence spend at an all-time high for the next decade, you have to wonder if CA has it’s eyes on Australian Government contracts. Let alone what it has to offer the Liberal Party in regards to electoral campaigning and staying in power.

Mr Nix shrugs off doubters of their data methodology:

“We have been doing this for nearly 30 years. I suppose if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t still be in business and we wouldn’t still be growing.”        

For those curious about what makes you or your friends tick, or a little bit of insight into your personality, please feel secure in trying the links below:

You can read more from Melanie McCartney on her blog or you can follow her on Twitter @CartwheelPrint.

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