What’s missing from the Cambridge Analytica story (as it stands)

Cambridge-AnalyticaFor many people, if you had to sum up the story of Cambridge Analytica in a sentence it would be:

“Cambridge Analytica dodgily obtained Facebook data, the Trump and Brexit campaigns used it, which got Trump into the White House and Britain out of the EU”

The first bit of the sentence is proven beyond doubt. Cambridge Analytica (CA) worked with a university researcher who underhandedly harvested the publicly-available Facebook data of around 87m people. Facebook received a record fine as a result.

The other bits of the sentence, however, are not proven beyond doubt.

We know that CA worked for both the Trump and Cruz campaigns, because the politicians declared payments to the company in their filings. From reports, we know some of the Brexit campaigns worked with a Canadian company called AIQ, which CA employees regarded as being effectively a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica.

However, CA provided a variety of different electoral services. Did the Brexit campaigns or the US Presidential candidates use its dodgily-obtained data, specifically? I haven’t yet found any official confirmation that this data was used by the Trump campaign. Its digital director said he did not use psychographic data (however, in the same interview he maps out in detail the campaign’s extensive micro-targeting efforts).

The Guardian’s original CA report stated that the Ted Cruz campaign used the dodgily-obtained data, but his officials said at the time that they didn’t think it had been illegally obtained.

For its part, the UK’s data watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office says it has not confirmed whether the dodgily-obtained data was in fact used in the 2016 Presidential election, by any campaign.

Neither can I find any specific, authoritative statements that the Brexit campaigns used the dodgily-obtained Facebook data.

This blog post is not meant to distract from the significant amount of other dodginess surrounding Cambridge Analytica: its fishy corporate structure, its troubling willingness to hide its influence in election campaigning, and its cynical targeting of countries with weak electoral oversight.

However, it’s important to be clear that the heart of the story – the dodgily-obtained data – has so far only been solidly linked to one campaign, that of Ted Cruz.

This may change – we may yet get official confirmation that the Trump and/or Brexit campaigns used the dodgily-obtained data. But even if so, there is still the third part of the sentence to prove – that this data got Trump into the White House and got Britain out of the EU.

In both cases, it’s hard to measure the effect of the Facebook campaigning that seemed to form a large part of CA’s work. At the same time, there was also febrile, wall-to-wall media coverage, and in the case of the US Presidential election the widescale hack-and-leak campaign against the Democrats, which eviscerated the party’s leadership team at a critical time just months before the vote.

What got Trump into the White House? Social media? A deeply-weakened opponent? Or the news networks’ coverage of the “lock her up”, “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” chants (reports which were also being pushed on social media)?

We may never know, but in the meantime it’s important to be clear on the details of the Cambridge Analytica story.

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