Much has been written about the murky world of the UK PR firm Cambridge Analytica – a company acting by stealth which furnished the propaganda behind successes like the election of Donald Trump along with the British vote for Brexit. One of the faces that Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s shadowy boss, liked to push was that of a young American women called Brittnay Kaiser. In her 2019 book, Kaiser admits I was just a glorified salesgirl. The book’s title – Targeted – can easily have two meanings. For one, we – or at least the voters of Donald Trump and the supporters of Brexit – have been targeted by Cambridge Analytica’s manipulative propaganda machine. The title can also mean that Brittnay Kaiser, originally a young Democrat and embued with a hefty dose of naivety, was targeted and lured into the opaque underworld of Cambridge Analytica to do their bidding.
Propaganda dates back to the year 1622 and the Catholic Church’s Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith). Four hundred years later, propaganda became important for the American capitalist Rockefeller. After his Ludlow Massacre in which countless workers and their families were killed by Rockefeller’s henchmen, the Rockefeller corporation sought to improve its image. It employed none other than the infamous Poison Ivy – real name Ivy Lee. Poison Ivy was already busy helping Nazi-Germany’s IG Farben that later manufactured Zyklon B used in Auschwitz.
But the new rising star in propaganda was the American Edward Bernays. After World War II, Bernays recognised that propaganda had developed a bad name perhaps because of Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda. As a consequence, Bernays simply renamed propaganda into the more tractable and innocently-sounding public relations. Bernays believed that “intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can…bring order out of chaos”. Like Le Bon, he too thought that Rouuseau’s volonté générale is nothing more than a dangerous crowd that brings chaos and chops the head off the ruling elite. This is to be avoided. With this public relations was born and it has been with us ever since.
While marketing’s task is to sell us consumer goods – i.e. expensive landfill – in order to power the machinery of consumer capitalism, public relations’ task is to create a pro-capitalist and a pro-business environment and an atmosphere in which capitalism and marketing can thrive. PR makes us believe that capitalism is good and shopping makes us happy; marketing lives off this unquestioned attitude. Just as there are marketing firms, there are PR firms. While we might know Satchi & Satchi, most of the world’s Top-Ten PR firms – 1. BCW, 2. Edelman, 3. FleishmanHillard, 4. H+K Strategies, 5. Weber Shandwick, 6. Marina Maher Communications, 7. Sard Verbinnen & Co, 8. Narva, 9. APCO Worldwide, 10. IN.FOM – remain unknown to us. This signifies the power of PR.
Compared to PR’s top-ten, Brittnay Kaiser’s outfit – Cambridge Analytica – was a small operation that only became famous because of its quasi-legal activities, its claim to be able to rig elections and its work for Donald Trump and Brexit. Before that, Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL had already worked in Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Latvia, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and more. It also worked with a shadowy organisation called Groundsell to undermine the Obama presidency.
One of the key claims of Cambridge Analytica is micro-targeting. It claims to be able to isolate individuals and literally causes them to think, vote, and act differently form how they had before. In the 1950s, the American scientist Solomon Ash had shown the world how easy it is to influence people. Cambridge Analytica applies this to get people to act differently from how they had acted before – to switch their vote from Democrats to Donald Trump in key US swing states, for example. All Trump needed were merely 107,000 votes. Cambridge Analytica claims to have delivered them or at least helped to deliver them. Since many Americans get their news via Facebook, Cambridge Analytica targets social media to get their message out. Cambridge Analytica rejects the idea of classical marketing and PR because it believes that blanket advertising is just too imprecise.
Cambridge Analytica claims to have hit upon the Holy Grail of communications – when you can actually start to change behaviour. It did no longer see itself as an advertising agency but as a behavioural change agency. For that, Cambridge Analytica uses methods such as psychographics to understand people’s complex personalities and devise ways to trigger their behaviour. These are psychological operations akin to psychological warfare, the infamous PsyOps of the military sciences. Cambridge Analytica’s favourite tool in PsyOps are the “Like”-clicks on Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica can use those few “likes” to predict skin colour, sexual orientation, political party affiliation, drug and alcohol use, and even whether a person had come from an intact or a divorced household. Seventy likes were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew. 150 likes and Cambridge Analytica can know what your parents know, and 300 likes what your partner knows. More likes can even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. It used these techniques in its campaign for US Republican Ted Cruz who had set out to conquer the Republican Party in the United States. When this failed, Cambridge Analytica bet on a new horse – Donald Trump. Today and even though no longer in operation, the lasting impact of Cambridge Analytica is that it has achieved what it had set out to achieve. We have Trump. Cambridge Analytica also claims other successes.
The company had just achieved a massive political upset in America, winning an unheard-of thirty-three out of forty-four races in the U.S. midterms. A 75 percent success rate for a communications agency coming in from the outside for the first time was astounding. To achieve this, Cambridge Analytica offered services such as opinion polling, caste and tribe research, opposition research, and even competitive intelligence – that is, state-of-the-art information gathering that could be used to research candidates personal and financial backgrounds and explore historic party dealings or hidden activities.
Much of this borders on what is known as Black Propaganda which is propaganda intended to create the impression that it was created by those it is supposed to discredit. Cambridge Analytica also engaged into negative campaigning. In that, Cambridge Analytica was convinced that native advertising is expensive, but the return on investment is huge. Propaganda or what we now call public relations also means uncovering material that would be useful for counter-operations and oppositional messaging.
Cambridge Analytica was deep into the election-fixing business. Such techniques also meant the doctoring of videos of your opponents shown in the faked video of Nancy Pelosi. The idea behind PsyOps, black propaganda and Cambridge Analytica is getting out as much material as possible and as fast as possible to make as significant an impact as possible. To do that, Cambridge Analytica and other PR firms would often establish a war room. For them, elections are like war. The goal is to destroy the enemy while rallying your troop. To rally their troops, Cambridge broke up Republicans – its target audience in this case – into core Republicans, reliable Republicans, turnout targets, priority Persuasions, and Wildcards. Each receive tailor-made messages. For that the aforementioned psychographics as well as micro-targeting becomes paramount.
Cambridge Analytica used psychographics to determined what motivated individuals to act…in the case of elections, we wanted people to donate money; learn about our candidate and the issues involved in the race; actually get out to the polling booths; and vote for our candidate. Likewise, and most disturbingly, some campaigns also aimed to “deter” some people from going to the polls at all.” On this, Cambridge Analytica used the OCEAN model, the degree to which an individual is O = open; C = conscientious; E = extroverted; A = agreeable; and N = neurotic. For that Cambridge Analytica used data they had gathered from Facebook.
The key is the power of behavioural predictability that can be used in election campaign influence. What helped Cambridge Analytica in this was the fact that – compared to Europe – United States lacked fundamental regulations with data privacy. What might help even more is that billionaire donors like Robert and Rebekah Mercer are relatively unhindered in supporting right-wing causes. They would employ shadowy political operators like Steve Bannon – the Mercers’ Obi-Wan Kenobi – and support radio demagogues who received Medals of Freedom. Much of this supported Donald Trump. It has long been recognized that Donald Trump’s quest for the presidency has been about creating business opportunities. Cambridge Analytica thought that the real reason Donald Trump was running for office…was to create the conditions for the launch of something called Trump TV. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff for a second-rate TV reality-show host.
Similar to the targeted Republicans, in the case of Brexit, Cambridge Analytica segmented its target audience by the following monikers: eager activists, young reformers, disaffected Tories and left behinds. The last category is of interest as it can be found among the Trump voters just as much as among voters for Germany’s right-wing extremists party The AfD. These voters feel increasingly alienated by globalization and society in general. They are suspicious of the establishment, including politicians, banks and corporations. For them, immigration is the central issue. The left-behinders are found to be highly neurotic and hence most reachable when messaging appeals to their fears. In the case of Germany’s left-behinders, access to the Internet is crucial and the use of Facebook as an echo chamber in particular. While many see Facebook as a platform to connect with friends, Cambridge Analytica sees it as a data collection behemoth, monetizing its data assets. Today, Facebook is the world’s most effective advertising corporation.
Cambridge Analytica used Facebook for its persuasion work which means convincing the voter about the appeal of the candidate and his or her policies, to effectively win them over. Not surprisingly, Facebook called its work with the Trump campaign: customer service plus. This could well mean that sensitive data containing personally identifiable information on voters had been transferred to Cambridge Analytica.
In the UK, there was a 52:48 win for Cambridge Analytica. People voted for Brexit. In the UK as in the USA, Cambridge Analytica created what it calls heat maps which included the number of persuadable voters in the areas a politician needed to visit. Crucially, the heat map tells a campaigner where the concentrations of persuadables are located.
The outcome of all this can well be a measurable 3% increase in a politician’s favourability – in some cases that is all what is needed. This is about getting a vote up but there are also PR instruments that get votes down. Trump’s battle, for example, wasn’t against only Hillary Clinton, it had been against the American people. Voter suppression and fear-mongering…had become a part of the playbook.
Like any other propaganda – euphemistically relabelled public relations, Cambridge Analytica sole goal was to influence people. Like an chthonic cult or a fringe religious sect, Cambridge prayed on the fears of vulnerable within the electorate in order to influence their voting behavior. What Cambridge Analytica did happened without anyone noticing. That’s the acme of effective propaganda. Cambridge Analytica preyed upon their deep-seated underlying fears and concerns. When someone asked the boss of Cambridge Analytica, does that mean that the candidate is just a puppet? Alexander Nix replied Always.