In the aftermath of the shocking victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, experts raced to come up with an explanation, stitching together disparate threads in an attempt to create a full picture of the variables that played a part and make sense of the historic upset.
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Trump’s employment of nakedly racist rhetoric to incite the country’s bigots, the media’s gift of constant free publicity to him, Comey’s letter about the Clinton investigation, massive Russian interference in our democracy, and numerous other causes have been listed. It was a perfect storm of bad breaks for the Clinton campaign that led to the election of the most incompetent, ignorant man to ever hold the office of the presidency.
One element of that storm that is often overlooked, however, is the role of data collection and targeting. It looks increasingly like Cambridge Analytica — the data mining and analysis company partially owned by Robert Mercer, a top campaign contributor to the Trump campaign and where former White House Chief Strategist was once Vice President — played a major role in the 2016 election. Jared Kushner, who was put in charge of the campaign’s digital operations, is attributed with bringing the company on board.
Previously, DailyBeast reported that the company offered to collaborate with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to release Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails, opening up speculation that they colluded with Russia, who many suspect provided Wikileaks with the hacked information.
Now, a new lawsuit in the United Kingdom may finally, fully reveal how much and in what ways Cambridge Analytica helped to elect our reality television president.
Mother Jones reports that the company may have processed the data of American voters in the UK. While the United States has lax data laws, meaning Americans have little recourse for pushing back against the collection of their data, the UK has much stricter rules.
In February of 2017, Professor David Caroll made an official request that Cambridge Analytica hand over the personal data they had compiled on him. In response, the company sent him a short summary of data points they had collected on him.
Their analysis of his political profile, constructed to help them predict his voting patterns, was largely accurate. He shared the information on Twitter:
Caroll and many of his followers were disturbed by the information, which had been gathered en masse without his knowledge or consent, then shared with unknown parties. Writes Jackie Flynn Mogenson of Mother Jones:
But what was particularly problematic for Carroll was that, he believes, the profile the company sent him wasn’t nearly comprehensive. Nix and other Cambridge Analytica executives have boasted that the company has up to a startling 5,000 data points on each of the 230 million voters in the US. What Carroll received in March, according to his tweet at the time, was about 200 data points, and, even then, it wasn’t clear how or where the company got the data or who it was shared with, beyond the vague descriptions in the letter.”
The data came from British company SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, leading Caroll to suspect that the data on Americans had been collected and compiled in the United Kingdom, making it subject to British laws, specifically the 1998 British Data Protection Act. Legal experts on Twitter quickly informed Caroll that the data collection he had been subjected to was in fact illegal.
Caroll and a group of anonymous Americans banded together and hired solicitor Ravi Naik for the lawsuit, which Caroll says they plan to officially file early next year. Writes Mogenson of the suit:
“This case, the group hopes, will clarify the legal requirements for British data-collecting companies—including those with information on non-European citizens. More specifically, the Data Protection Act also states that companies must obtain ‘explicit consent’ from individuals before processing sensitive personal data, including ‘political opinions.’ Cambridge Analytica, Naik argues, failed to obtain consent from American voters in 2016. ‘What the European regulations on data protection make clear is that if you want to collect and process sensitive personal data here, you should get consent to do so,’ Naik tells Mother Jones. ‘Political opinions are recognized as a class of sensitive personal data, as information deserving of higher protection.”
Depending on how the case shapes up, it could end up fully exposing how and why data was used to influence the 2016 election. Ideally, a positive outcome would also give voters the option to opt out of such data collection and analysis.
Perhaps most interestingly, the results could finally crack open the whole rotten egg that is the Trump campaign and reveal what role Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump played in the data collection company’s possible criminality or possible Russian collusion.
Cambridge Analytica boasts that it employs “psychographics” as opposed to the more traditional demographics approach. Psychographics are purported to break down an individual’s personality in a more in-depth fashion and use that profile to predict behavior.
“People don’t realize that all of their consumer behavior—every time they swipe their credit card, what websites they visit, the TV shows they watch—is being re-connected to your voter file and processed internationally. And we can’t opt out of it,” Caroll told Mother Jones.
Molly McKew, a specialist on U.S.-Russia relations, spoke to Mother Jones about the frightening implications of Cambridge Analytica’s practices. She points out that the company is, by their own admission, seeking to influence elections all around the globe.
“Nobody wants to believe that information, coming from some place they don’t really understand, could change how they think or what their decisions are, but it can—for any of us. Why does some company incorporated in the United Kingdom have [our data]? What the hell is that for? If it were just about selling shoes, or getting you to buy vitamins or whatever crap—ok, fine. But that’s not what it’s being used for, and they specifically say that. [SCL] is a company that’s marketing themselves as a military-grade psychological warfare and psychological operations company. That is a problem for all of us,” told Mother Jones.
In preparation for the lawsuit, Caroll and his fellow plaintiffs are using crowdfunding to cover any unexpected expenses or setbacks. Click here to donate. Hopefully, through the brave actions of these concerned citizens, the entire country will get a clearer view of how democracy was subverted, so that we can prevent it from happening again.