How Cambridge Analytica turned social media into a political weapon for hire


I was one of those people whose understanding of the world was confounded by the outcome of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

I watched the Leave Campaign with my lip curled in contempt as they lied and spread hate and made promises on the side of a bus that I knew they couldn’t keep. They were so transparent in their lies, so contemptible in their values, so condescending towards those that they wanted to vote for them that I could not imagine a world in which they might actually win. I knew the British public had more sense and more honour than that.

I watched with puzzlement as Trump, a reality TV show performer who, at the time of the election campaigns, was being taken to court on charges ranging from rape to fraud, who was openly  misogynistic, mocked disabled people, proudly displayed his ignorance of world politics by asking “What’s Aleppo?” during a debate on the Middle East and offered no policies other than building a wall between the US and Mexico and deconstructing Obamacare, become the Republican Party candidate.

I was completely clear that the UK would vote Remain and Trump would never make it to the White House.

I was wrong. So wrong that I struggled to come to terms with the profundity of my own misjudgement. Something in the world had changed that made my understanding of the possible unsound.

oceanThen, on Twitter, J. J. Patrick gave me three words that showed me what I’d missed: “Cambridge Analytica” and OCEAN.

I  have a background in psychometrics so I was familiar with OCEAN. It’s the marketing acronym for the Five Factor Model (FFM) for assessing personality. The test just tells me how I process experiences, relate to other people and assess risk. It’s useful for putting teams together and managing people but  I couldn’t see how it could be part of the explanation for my sudden onset of political blindness.


Alexander Nix

I had to look up Cambridge Analytica. On first glance, they seemed to be a marketing agency that focused on using big data to improve digital marketing. I work with people in this area but I still didn’t make the connection. Then I saw the video below of a presentation that Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, gave at the September 2016 Concordia Summit

In the press release for the event, Cambridge Analytica was described as

“the market leader in the provision of data analytics and behavioral communications for political campaigns, issue groups and commercial enterprises. With cutting-edge technology, pioneering data science, and 25 years of experience in behavior change, CA provides advertisers with unparalleled insight into their audiences.”

Alexander Nix was listed as presenting:

“his approach to audience targeting and data modeling combined with psychological profiling, explaining how this will continue to enhance elections and disrupt conventional marketing.”

It doesn’t sound like it’s going to set the world on fire, does it? In the video, Nix comes across as a calm, clear, academically credible presenter with just enough marketing flair to make his message memorable but not enough flash to undermine its credibility.

It took me a while to get past this accomplished persona and understand what Nix was really offering.

He had bought data from Facebook and other social media to collect 4,000 to 5,000 data point PER VOTER: where they live, how they vote, where they shop, what they buy, what they read, what they watch, who they interact with, who they donate to and, most importantly, their psychometric/psychographic profile, collected by offering a free “test your personality here” quiz, which, Nix claimed, enabled Cambridge Analytica to profile “the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,”


This data enabled him to target the voters that were NOT likely to go out and vote for a candidate and hit them where he knew they hung out on social media with messages tuned to be most likely to by-pass their filters and resonate with their personality and identify with the candidate’s message on a topic

Nix was quietly proud of the fact that this allowed you to win a vote with two different messages, tuned to appeal to two different audiences. He takes the example of gun control and suggests that the pro-gun message needs to be sold differently to different personality profiles using the slide below, Nix said

“For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun. Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”


As I watched the video it became clear to me that what Nix was offering to give whoever paid him, an ability to “sell” politicians on a purely emotional basis, to people who might not normally even vote. There is no need for facts, or arguments, or policy just marketing images and slogans targeted to generate uncritical emotional acceptance. Nix had turned big data and psychometrics into a political weapon.

Take a look at the video. It’s eleven minutes long. Eleven eye-opening, frightening, morally vacant minutes.


The Leave.EU campaign bought Cambridge Analytica’s services. So did Trump. They both ran what Nix calls “data-lead” campaigns. In other words, they figured out what messages, presented which way, would influence which voters and then they marketed the hell out of them.

So far as I can see, nothing Cambridge Analytica did was illegal. It wasn’t even covert.   Yet its impact on the political contests was like providing automatic weapons to one side of a conflict previously fought with bows and arrows.

This is what I had missed. This is why I was surprised. Cambridge Analytica had changed the game and I hadn’t noticed.

cambridge analytica

One other point that I missed was the influence of right-wing billionaires like Banks and Mercer who funded Brexit and Trump.  In theory, Cambridge Analytica’s services could have been bought by anyone. In practice, they were bought by campaigns funded by right-wing billionaires.  Steve Bannon heavily linked to Mercer, Trump’s advisor during the election and still driving an alt.right agenda via Breitbart was on the Board of Cambridge Analytica.

It seems to me that the emergence of Cambridge Analytica and their use by right-wing groups, funded by influential, politically active billionaires is unlikely to have been a spontaneous product of market forces.

I believe that replacing policy with marketing messages tuned by big data and psychometrics to alter voter behaviour fundamentally undermines democracy.

It creates a moral vacuum by telling voters whatever they want to hear.

It moves from facts and policies to emotions and fears.

It is divisive in that it amplifies our fears, focuses on our differences and replaces discussion to reach consensus with sloganeering and mutual abuse.

We can’t unmake this weapon. We must devise a way to control who has access to it and how it is used.


Alternative WarIf you want to know more, read:

“The Data That Turned the World Upside Down” published by Stanford University and written by Swiss journalists, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus.

J J Patrick’s “Alternative War” ($2.99 from Kindle at the time of writing) which makes a convincing case for disinformation as a weapon in a Hybrid War with Russia to undermine or disrupt Western democracies


One thought on “How Cambridge Analytica turned social media into a political weapon for hire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s