Open secret about Cambridge Analytica sheds new light on Facebook data scandal

  • The Cambridge Analytica scandal is roiling the tech and political worlds.

  • But in politics, many have said the company over-promised and under-delivered.

  • "As a data company that promised that extra secret sauce data was going to be a breakthrough, they didn't really provide that," one campaign operative told Business Insider.

As Sen. Ted Cruz mounted a bid for the presidency in 2016, a nascent, data-obsessed company presented his campaign with an intriguing proposition.

They had a "secret sauce" that no other firm could deliver.

Cambridge Analytica promised a data service that was enhanced by its "psychographic" voter profiles. Unlike other services, Cambridge Analytica could micro-target voters based on their personality traits, working to streamline and tailor a political message exactly to a person's needs.

But that "psychographic" targeting is far from proven science. And for the Cruz campaign, it didn't ultimately prove to be very useful.

"Cambridge came in and they had this whole idea that was very interesting to us with this psychographic data and how it could be used," Rick Tyler, the Cruz campaign's communications director, told Business Insider. "I'm still not unconvinced that it could be used, but it was definitely not perfected. So they end up being a competent data company, but that extra thing they were promising, they really didn't deliver on."

The data firm, which has garnered significant attention in the political world over the past few years for its work for candidates like Cruz and President Donald Trump, has come under fire in recent days. A whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, detailed how the company exploited Facebook to collect data from unknowing participants.

Wylie said he "made Steve Bannon's psychological warfare tool," noting Trump's former chief strategist's involvement with the group, which is backed by GOP mega donor Robert Mercer and his family.

But in the political world, the open secret about the company is that it never quite delivered on its grandiose promises or its "secret sauce." And for candidates like Cruz and Trump, its key function was as a vehicle to the Mercer family's power and donations.

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Cambridge Analytica used the data to develop what it called "psychographic" profiles on tens of millions of US voters, which may have helped the Trump campaign reach a slim victory in 2016, something about which company was not shy about claiming credit.

But both Brad Parscale, who ran Trump's data operation, and Matt Oczkowski, the chief product officer for Cambridge, said the Trump campaign didn't use "psychographic" targeting based on people's personality types. The campaign didn't even use Cambridge's trove of data, as Wired has reported, instead opting for the Republican National Committee's data file.

"The RNC was the voter file of record for the campaign, but we were the intelligence on top of the voter file," Oczkowski said. "Sometimes the sales pitch can be a bit inflated, and I think people can misconstrue that."

No 'secret sauce'

For the Cruz campaign, which utilized Cambridge Analytica before Trump's operation, the service did not provide "any lift over what they said was the extra secret sauce," Tyler said.

"As a data company, they're a good data company," Tyler said. "But as a data company that promised that extra secret sauce data was going to be a breakthrough, they didn't really provide that."

In July 2015, Tyler hailed the service, calling it "better than anything I've ever seen." But by the time Cruz pulled off his victory in the Iowa caucuses the following year, Tyler said it was clear the campaign's digital operation was more a credit to its top data staffer, Chris Wilson, and not Cambridge Analytica.

The company oversold its capabilities, Tyler said.

"Give me a political vendor that hasn't done that," he said.

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'I think that part of the story is a little overblown'

Cambridge Analytica's CEO, Alexander Nix, who has been suspended pending an investigation, assured the Cruz campaign that all of the data it acquired was done so ethically and legally, Tyler said. But with so much data for a campaign to sift through, "you can't go through 30,000 points of data and go, 'Did you acquire this piece of data on this voter ethically?'"

"I think that part of the story is a little overblown," Tyler said. "Every day the company is searching for more information to make their predictability models better. There's nothing new about that. There's nothing nefarious about it. People give away their information routinely. None of that is new."

Blame for the scandal applies equally to both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, which "allowed it to happen," Tyler said.

One of the first campaigns Cambridge Analytica helped was Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina in his 2014 bid. In 2015, Tillis campaign consultant Paul Shumaker said the service "gives you an edge in increasing the probability that voters would pay attention to your message."

But reached by Business Insider on Tuesday, Shumaker said Cambridge Analytica did not play a major role in the campaign. He said he passed on employing Cambridge's services in Sen. Richard Burr's 2016 campaign in the state.

"Work they provided was what I would call standard data analytics," he said. "I interviewed multiple data teams for Burr for 2016, including Cambridge, and they did not make the cut."

People just wanted to appease the Mercer family

Shumaker said "it is not unusual for vendors to overstate their role when a campaign most expect to fail, succeeds."

The company's overstated political influence was noted by New York Times political reporter Ken Vogel, who tweeted Monday that the company's "BIGGEST SECRET" was that it is "an overpriced service that delivered little value to the TRUMP campaign, & the other campaigns & PACs that retained it" and that most people hired it because it was seen as a "prerequisite" for receiving cash from the Mercer family.

"The reason (some) operatives praised CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA was to appease the MERCERS," he added.

Some of the nation's top political observers responded to the thread of tweets with comments like "100%" and "1000%."

'That is, in a word, politics'

Scott Tranter, a cofounder of the data-analytics firm Optimus who was on the data team for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential bid, told Business Insider that the "psychographic" modeling that Cambridge Analytica touts "isn't proven science," which is at least partially why some found the service to be nothing special.

The company "essentially had a variable, that apparently they may have illicitly obtained, in which they claimed had significance in predicting peoples behaviors, claims not backed by science or anything peer reviewable," he said.

Others agreed that Cambridge Analytica's influence was "overblown." Slate's Will Oremus wrote that as "sinister" as the "psychographic" targeting sounds, it's "an imprecise science at best and 'snake oil' at worst."

The scandal is "a case of campaign consultants using some shady tactics to try and get their message out to the most receptive audience in the most effective way they can," he said.

"That is, in a word, politics."

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart News, said the story is more about how Facebook allowed the data scraping to occur and less about "how Trump won."

"It would be a fallacy to believe that whatever happened with Cambridge and Trump is what led to Trump's victory," he said. "Most reputable data firms are using proven predictive modeling techniques on an individual level whereas Cambridge was guilty of using fancy fake science terms on unwitting politicians who do not understand how data analytics work."

"What CA has done is not science, it's marketing to the ignorant and using the perception of success and proximity to Trump to grow their own brand and book of business," he added. "Sound familiar? It should because that's the Steve Bannon playbook."

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