Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the data war

I often seen people doing and sharing surveys and quizzes on Facebook. They always looked looked suspicious to me – they looked designed to suck people in.

And it turns out some of them were exactly that – for a nefarious reason. They were used to gather data and compile personality profiles of hundreds of millions of people, and then those people were targeted with “rumour, disinformation and fake news” to influence them in elections.

The process was used experimentally in many elections in many countries – I don’t know if New Zealand was subjected to subliminal coercion (journalists?). The first big election that it was tried on was the Brexit vote in the UK, which surprisingly swung to a vote to exit the European Union.

Then it was used in the US election which resulted in Donald Trump being elected against the odds (aided by a flawed campaign and a flawed campaigner, Hillary Clinton).

Now Cambridge Analytica and the use and abuse of Facebook is being exposed.

Bloomberg: Facebook Suspends Trump Election Data Firm for Policy Violations

  • Data harvested from 50 million Facebook accounts: N.Y. Times
  • Fighting ‘culture war,’ ex-Cambridge Analytica employee says

Facebook Inc. suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data company that helped President Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and which may have collected data from 50 million Facebook profiles without their owners’ permission.

The social-networking company said in a blog post Friday that Cambridge Analytica received some user data through an app developer on its social network, violating its policies. In 2015, Facebook said Cambridge Analytica certified that it had destroyed the information.

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted,” Facebook said in a statement. Cambridge Analytica and parent Strategic Communication Laboratories have been suspended from the social network, “pending further information,” Facebook said.

Cambridge Analytica said in a Saturday statement it did nothing illegal and is ​in touch with Facebook in order to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

Originally funded by Robert Mercer, the conservative political donor and former co-chief executive officer of Renaissance Technologies, Cambridge uses data to reach voters with hyper-targeted messaging, including on Facebook and other online services. It was hired to help with voter outreach by the Trump campaign, whose former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, had been on the company’s board.

Steve Bannon was closely connected to this – and became closely connected to the Trump campaign.

Now one of the people deeply involved is blowing the whistle:The Cambridge Analytica Files 

‘I created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower

For more than a year we’ve been investigating Cambridge Analytica and its links to the Brexit Leave campaign in the UK and Team Trump in the US presidential election. Now, 28-year-old Christopher Wylie goes on the record to discuss his role in hijacking the profiles of millions of Facebook users in order to target the US electorate.

Starting in 2007, Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on “big five” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles.

Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people.

The research was original, groundbreaking and had obvious possibilities. “They had a lot of approaches from the security services,” a member of the centre told me. “There was one called You Are What You Like and it was demonstrated to the intelligence services. And it showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.

“There are agencies that fund research on behalf of the intelligence services. And they were all over this research. That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.”

The defence and military establishment were the first to see the potential of the research.

That should be a concern to everyone – this is not the Russian establishment, it is the US and UK establishment, which New Zealand has close links to.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies. They’re the early adopters… they’re highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.”

T…the job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the US’s Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

It turned out the the UK and US democracies were unable to defend themselves either.

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”. His brief ranged across the SCL Group – the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

I tell him that another former employee described the firm as “MI6 for hire”, and I’d never quite understood it.

“It’s like dirty MI6 because you’re not constrained. There’s no having to go to a judge to apply for permission. It’s normal for a ‘market research company’ to amass data on domestic populations. And if you’re working in some country and there’s an auxiliary benefit to a current client with aligned interests, well that’s just a bonus.”

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”

Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology.

The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques.

Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows, he says.

Millions of people’s personal information was stolen and used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about, by a mercenary outfit, Cambridge Analytica, who, Wylie says, “would work for anyone”. Who would pitch to Russian oil companies. Would they subvert elections abroad on behalf of foreign governments?

It occurs to me to ask Wylie this one night.


Nato or non-Nato?

“Either. I mean they’re mercenaries. They’ll work for pretty much anyone who pays.”

It’s an incredible revelation. It also encapsulates all of the problems of outsourcing – at a global scale, with added cyberweapons. And in the middle of it all are the public – our intimate family connections, our “likes”, our crumbs of personal data, all sucked into a swirling black hole that’s expanding and growing and is now owned by a politically motivated billionaire.

The Facebook data is out in the wild. And for all Wylie’s efforts, there’s no turning the clock back.

What to take from all of this? It’s difficult to know. The Wylie revelations could be fake news. Or this story could reveal a propaganda genie that is now out of the bottle, an insidious corruption of democracy.

We are all influenced with the news and views we see online. It’s impossible for us to know whether we have been targeted, whether we have been sucked in, whether we have been influenced by people deliberately trying to swing elections.

Using political propaganda is nothing new, it has been done in various ways for a long time. But using the power and speed of the Internet, the potential is certainly there to take propaganda to a new and dangerous level.

How dangerous? Enough to steer the UK towards chaos as they try to extract themselves from the European Union. Enough to install a chaotic president in the US. Enough to elect an unlikely president in France? Enough to create a precarious political balance in Germany?

What about New Zealand? See Was New Zealand’s election rigged by foreign powers?







Leave a comment


  1. David

     /  19th March 2018

    There seems to be quite a bit of howling from the journalists bubble as to how certain outcomes happened because everyone they know and socialize with has pretty much the same opinion as them therefore they have to find some reason why election outcomes are not what they expected. The most comforting thing to them is to blame the Russians or Bots or anything than face the reality that their social and work circle and everyone they interact with is not representative of society in general.
    Outside of London Brexit is pretty popular, in the middle of the US Trump is popular, if you held a referendum in Europe the EU would be defeated in half the countries. The familiar theme is journalists are London based, in the US they live in LA and New York and in Europe they are in Berlin, Paris and Brussels and after the class divide was just about ended a new class structure has developed and its quite an ugly and judgy one.
    Cambridge Analytica may be able to exploit/use these gaps but they exist and are worsening and are polarized.

  2. Corky

     /  19th March 2018

    This is just the beginning.

    View at Medium.com

    • phantom snowflake

       /  19th March 2018

      Hilarious. That’s the same Nafeez Ahmed whose CV includes: former environment blogger for The Guardian, member of the Executive Committee of the British Muslim Human Rights Centre at London Metropolitan University’s Human Rights and Social Justice Institute, former senior researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

      You have no idea how happy it makes me that you are promoting the writing of a Greenie Muslim SJW!

      • Corky

         /  19th March 2018

        Like I tell Gezza…concentrate on the facts…are they right.- regardless of the author?

        I’m glad you are happy. You will now have a lovely day.

  3. Trevors_elbow

     /  19th March 2018

    Facebook itselfs harvests your data and targets you. It has been accused of attempting to manipulate your newsfeed for ulterior motives… as have twitter and others. But they do it for left wing/liberal goals… so its all ok….

    Research companies play their part with leading and limited response surveys designed to get a result to publish, to push an agenda for a client

    If you are influenced by ads and targeted false news more fool you… welcome to the 21st century this shit has just got started

  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  19th March 2018

    used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about,

    I call b.s. on that. If they don’t see it they are not affected by it. They may be presented with slanted news posts but they are going to get that anyway if they are silly enough to believe what they read there. FB is full of crap from a billion dedicated crap pushers.

    • Joe Bloggs

       /  19th March 2018

      Typical diversionary tactics – as usual you focus your victim-blaming abuse on the users, and not on the serious questions about:

      1) the level of detail that Cambridge Analytica knew about users,

      2) whether it acquired that information illegally and

      3) whether it sought to abuse that information in support of trump’s political campaign in the US or Brexit in the UK.

      The trump campaign’s data firm illegally acquired data on 50 million Facebook users’ information and then lied about deleting it.

      Voter repression, gerrymandering, stealing data… why does the GOP need to cheat to “win”? I guess we’ll find out soon enough – because Mueller has just requested that CA turn over internal documents as part of his investigation.

      If the ongoing investigations conclude that the trump campaign did help Russia target voters, expect to hear more about CA. It’s entirely possible that such collusion could have occurred and CA had nothing to do with it; however, that’d be strange, since targeting voters is precisely what the company was hired to do.

      I suspect this is where the Mueller investigation is heading: collaboration between the Trump campaign (through Cambridge Analytica) and the Russian government on the development and deployment of these digital advertisements.

      But then you’ll continue to be blinkered for as long as the cognitive dissonance is more uncomfortable than keeping your head up your ass.

    • Griff

       /  19th March 2018

      Whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument, which is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda.

      • David

         /  19th March 2018

        Whataboutism is it? It’s a very simple point, this type of data has been used in elections by both sides for a very long time. Cambridge Analytica were doing nothing that any of the other election polling companies and organisations were either trying to do, or doing.

        If it is wrong for them to be doing it, the entire concept of elections as we know them is flawed.

        • Griff

           /  19th March 2018

          Try reading the bloody story before commenting .
          The technique is new, based on new research and stolen data.
          You show plenty of evidence of being the sort of numbnuts who falls for this sort of targeted propaganda.

          • David

             /  19th March 2018

            There is nothing new about it. If it has been done on stolen data, then I’m sure at some point there can be some actual charges, but currently there are not.

            • Joe Bloggs

               /  19th March 2018

              CA illegally acquired data on 50 million Facebook users’ information and then lied about deleting it.

              CA also employed non-American citizens to work on US election campaigns in violation of federal law, despite receiving a legal warning about the risks back in July 2014.

              This particular pair of shoes dropped less than a week ago and already it’s the subject of calls for investigations in US and UK, and Court action has already commenced against CA in the UK.

              How about holding your breath while waiting for those charges to drop David? That’d do us all a service.

          • David

             /  19th March 2018

            “How about holding your breath while waiting for those charges to drop David? That’d do us all a service.”

            You could do the same now couldn’t you?

            • Joe Bloggs

               /  19th March 2018

              David, nup, that’s just unworkable….

              As a gold-card member of Antifa, I’m obliged to compensate for your reluctance to engage with the issues, your absence of insight, and your relentless cheer-leading for trumpy 🙂

              Here’s some grist for the mill from this week’s Unsung Heroes of America file:

            • David

               /  19th March 2018

              Is that the same John Brennan who was head of the CIA while the Russians systematically corrupted the US electoral system and got there own place man in as President?

              On his watch…..

            • Joe Bloggs

               /  19th March 2018

              Yup, same John Brennan. A lovely turn of phrase has our John… I particularly like the bit about the “full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption”. Kinda nails the whole sad situation.

            • David

               /  19th March 2018

              Well, he may have a turn of phrase, but it does seem quite impotent when used from Twitter given he presided over the entire mess he claims has occurred.

              You would think he would have done something about it when it was happening and he controlled the CIA.

  5. David

     /  19th March 2018

    And his ‘microtargeting’;

    “If you voted this election season, President Obama almost certainly has a file on you.”


    • High Flying Duck

       /  19th March 2018

      David, you should know by now – it’s only a problem when the right do it. Especially Trump, whose very name transforms it into fascist state interference.
      With Obama it was a friendly exercise in ensuring you received the appropriate information – basically a public service.

  6. Facebook has suspended Wylie:

  1. Was New Zealand’s election rigged by foreign powers? | Your NZ

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