A little more on Cambridge Analytica, which Carole Caldwalla reported on recently in the Guardian. The audience-targeting company is being given significant credit by some for powering the Trump campaign to Electoral College victory. My main hesitation with believing online fake news was an predominant factor in the recent election is that Trump won overwhelmingly with older Americans, who seem to have been more plugged into Fox News than Facebook. It may have played a role, but did it really have a greater impact than, say, a legacy-media company like the New York Times, running an un-skeptical headline above the fold about the FBI suspiciously reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails? Or Russia hacking the election? It’s hard to untangle what just went on, but looking for a single smoking gun will probably always prove unsatisfactory.
Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.
But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — “our secret sauce,” Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.
Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.
“They’ve got a lot of really smart people,” said Brent Seaborn, managing partner of TargetPoint, a rival business that also provided voter data to the Trump campaign. “But it’s not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there’s a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.”•