Controversy continues to mount over the actions of Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm that used personal information improperly harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users to help Donald Trump's presidential campaign. After an undercover reporting operation caught the company's senior executives bragging about psychological manipulation, entrapment, and fake news campaigns, the company has suspended its CEO, and a former Cambridge Analytica contractor-turned-whistleblower has agreed to share information with Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
Cambridge Analytica was founded in late 2013 as the U.S.-based offshoot of SCL Group, a British company launched in 1990 as a research center for strategic communication. SCL describes its specialities as "psychological warfare," "public diplomacy," and "influence operations." Speaking to a Slate reporter at a U.K. military technology expo in 2005, the company's public affairs director defended the use of lies by governments if they served to save lives, while the company's exhibit touted its capacity to carry out coups. It claims to have worked for the United Nations as well as in numerous countries around the world.
SCL formed Cambridge Analytica specifically to get involved in U.S. politics. The spinoff is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, a New York-based computer scientist, hedge fund manager and conservative benefactor who's been named one of the most influential billionaires in politics. In the 2016 federal election cycle, Mercer donated more than $22.5 million to so-called "outside spending" groups, with all of that money benefitting conservative campaigns. Former Trump adviser and far-right leader Steve Bannon also owned a stake in the company, served as its vice president, and managed the efforts to collect Facebook data; he sold his stake last year over ethics concerns related to his White House role.
Cambridge Analytica got its start working in an election in a Southern state. Back in 2013, Mercer agreed to help pay for a $1.5 million pilot project to test what's known as "psychographic messaging" — based on voters' psychology rather than just their demographics — in Virginia's gubernatorial race to boost Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, over businessman and Democratic Party leader Terry McAuliffe. Though Cuccinelli lost, Mercer agreed to move forward with the project, and Cambridge Analytica launched that December.
The firm was active in federal U.S. elections in the 2014 and 2016 cycles, working on or in support of various Republican campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Cambridge Analytica's top customer in U.S. politics in that time was the Trump campaign, which paid it over $5.9 million in 2016 for "data management services." Hidden camera footage taken by reporters caught now-suspended CEO Alexander Nix saying that the company did "all the targeting" and "ran all the digital campaign" for the Trump presidential operation. NPR noted that Nix's statements "appear to allude to tactics that may violate U.S. campaign finance laws," which prohibit campaigns from operating through super PACs and other groups that can accept unlimited contributions.
Cambridge Analytica's second-biggest customer, paying it over $5.8 million, was Make America Number 1, a super PAC run by Rebekah Mercer, Robert Mercer's daughter. The super PAC was active in the presidential election, supporting first U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and then Donald Trump while actively opposing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Democrat Hillary Clinton. In 2016, the super PAC paid Cambridge Analytica $1.4 million for services including "data acquisition," "political strategy," and "campaign management," and it made another $4.3 million in independent expenditures to the firm for media on behalf of and opposing those same presidential candidates.
In third place among Cambridge Analytica's biggest U.S. political clients was the Cruz campaign, which paid the firm $5.8 million for services including media, data management, and voter and donor modeling. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the Cruz campaign was essentially ripped off by Cambridge Analytica, paying millions for an app that did not actually exist.
Seven Republican congressional campaigns also worked with Cambridge Analytica, including four in Southern states:
- Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina paid $130,000 over both cycles for "microtargeting" of voters.
- Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas paid $20,000 in 2014 for "data consulting."
- Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina paid $15,000 in 2014 for "polling/research."
- Rick Kozell of Florida paid $5,210 in the 2015-16 cycle for "research" but lost the Republican primary to represent the state's 18th Congressional District.
The North Carolina GOP was the only party organization to hire Cambridge Analytica, paying the firm $215,000 over both election cycles for "microtargeting" and "consulting fees." Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse told The Hill that the party does not plan to hire the firm again and accused the Obama campaign of using similar data handling methods. However, former Obama campaign officials told ABC News that they collected data with their own app, complied with Facebook's terms of service, and received permission from supporters before accessing their personal data.
In some instances, super PACs made independent expenditures to Cambridge Analytica to buy advertising for and against candidates. For example, Warrior PAC — a super PAC run by Louisiana Republican operative John Mathis — made $480,000 in independent expenditures to Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 election cycle for advertising in support of Republican Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel who ran unsuccessfully in Louisiana's crowded U.S. Senate race, which was ultimately won by Republican John Kennedy.
Sometimes the connection between Cambridge Analytica and candidates is less direct. For example, the fourth-biggest reported payment to the firm between 2013 and 2016 came from the John Bolton Super PAC, which paid $1.1 million for survey and other research. That super PAC, in turn, spent $1.3 million to support Tillis and $825,000 to boost Cotton in the 2014 cycle. It also backed several Senate candidates in the 2016 cycle, spending $337,000 supporting Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and another $402,000 opposing his challenger, Democrat Deborah Ross.
Tillis has downplayed Cambridge Analytica's role in his own campaign and noted that they are no longer his digital vendor. "My expectation is that all services provided to my campaign are lawful — regardless of who provides them, including third parties," he said in a statement. "If we were misled by a vendor, that would be deeply disturbing."
The latest revelations about the company are that it sent dozens of foreign nationals to provide campaign strategy and messaging advice to Republican candidates during the 2014 election. That would violate U.S. election regulations, which say foreign nationals must not "directly or indirectly participate in the decision-making process" of a political campaign. If the allegations are true, the U.S. Justice Department could prosecute the company and its managers.
Woodhouse has denied that any foreigners worked for the N.C. Republican Party. However, a Canadian man who handled messaging for Cambridge out of its London office in 2014 said he worked on all of the company's U.S. political campaigns that year, "and stopped at most of them, like Thom Tillis's campaign."