The jury finally came in this week on Cambridge Analytica, and it was guilty as charged: Grand theft on a mindboggling scale as it was revealed the psychometric warfare trailblazer had worked hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign to run a secret operation targeting unsuspecting voters. Only one piece of this desecration of the bedrock of American democracy now remains missing: To what extent did this tandem work with Russian trolls to steal the 2016 election and put Trump in the White House?
It was a marriage made in evildoer heaven. A sleazy company founded by alt-right hero Steve Bannon and bankrolled by a hedge-fund billionaire teamed with a campaign digital operation led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, perhaps the dirtiest of the Trump insiders, and directed by computer guru Brad Parscale (photo, above).
Operating out of a modernistic building in San Antonio, the team may have worked with the hackers and Internet trolls who were the foot soldiers in Vladimir Putin's cyber war against Hillary Clinton, helping them pinpoint where to target Facebook ads and email bot barrages with fake news stories, as well as set up phony Facebook and Twitter accounts to further disseminate anti-Clinton propaganda.
Their primary targets were voters who were soft on Clinton and might vote for a third-party candidate. And in an especially devious move, blacks who had enthusiastically supported Barack Obama but might be discouraged to stay home.
These voters most notably were in three nominally blue swing states where the team found unexpected weakness in voter support for Clinton. It was there that they unleashed fussilades of fake news and anti-Clinton hashtags that repeatedly linked back to DCLeaks, a website run by Russian intelligence that posted emails Russian hackers had stolen from the Clinton campaign.
These fake stories included Clinton's role in a pedophile ring being run out of a Washington pizzeria, that the Google search engine was suppressing anti-Clinton news, that Clinton and Barack Obama were founders of the Islamic State, and that Clinton would start World War III over Syria.
Blacks were targeted with so-called dark posts reminding them about Clinton's infamous 1990s comment about young blacks being "super predators," while blacks in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood were bombarded with messages linking the Clinton Foundation to post-earthquake problems in Haiti.
Because Russian hackers would not have known what voters to target in which states, there can be only one source for their cyber onslaught: The Cambridge Analytica-Trump campaign digital team alliance.
Trump was aware of the fake-news operation.
As the presidential race heated up over the summer of 2016 and polls showed Trump trailing Clinton, he shamelessly promoted several of the more explosive fake-news stories in sync with the hackers and trolls. These included the phony Google search engine, Clinton-Obama-ISIS and World War III stories.
A key -- if not the key -- to Trump's shocking victory may have been Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three nominally blue swing states where the team spotted unexpected weakness in voter support for Clinton and inundated voters in targeted election districts with fake news.
Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined 77,744 votes out of 13.9 million cast in those states and with them ceded 46 precious Electoral College votes to Trump. This gave him 34 more electoral votes than the 270 needed to be elected, although he fell nearly 3 million votes short in the popular vote.
Without the secret voter targeting, Clinton would have won the Electoral College outright by a 275-248 electoral vote margin presuming -- and it is a safe bet -- that a had mere 5,353 Trump voters in Michigan gone for her instead, as well as 22,147 in Pennsylvania and 11,375 in Wisconsin.
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The shadowy world of Cambridge Analytica was blown wide open earlier this week when Britain's Channel 4 News aired an explosive exposé showing CEO Alexander Nix talking on hidden camera to someone he thought was a potential political client about entrapping opponents by sending "very beautiful Ukrainian girls" to their homes, offering bribes while secretly filming them and putting the footage online, as well as using fake IDs and bogus websites.
The blockbuster followed stories in The New York Times and The Observer of London on the unashamedly exploitive tactics of the high tech trickster.
Cambridge Analytica grew out of a meeting at the Manhattan apartment of Rebekah Mercer in the fall of 2013 in which her father Robert Mercer, like her a right-wing megadonor and with Bannon a co-founder of Breitbart News, funded its creation with $10 million. (Other reports say $15 million.) Also present were Bannon and political data expert Christopher Wylie.
Wylie has become a latter-day whistleblower because of feelings of guilt for having helped develop an advanced form of political targeting for people whose politics are the opposite of his own, something he calls "Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mindfuck tool"
That occurred in 2014 with the assistance of Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American professor at Cambridge University, who was hired by Cambridge Analytica for $800,000. Kogan then approached Facebook with the cover story that he was developing a personality quiz and an app called thisisyourdigitallife which was downloaded by a test population of 270,000 Facebook users.
In reality -- and in perhaps the greatest example of data rape to date -- Kogan and Cambridge Analytica vacuumed up the profiles of 50 million Facebook users and when belatedly discovered by Mark Zuckerberg's geniuses at Facebook lied about destroying the data.
(Parscale, meanwhile, was designing websites for Trump family interests, including the Trump Winery and Eric Trump Foundation. In 2015, he designed Trump's exploratory campaign website and then his official campaign website before Kushner designated him in 2016 to direct the campaign's digital operations.)
Later in 2014, Cambridge Analytica assigned dozens of non-U.S. citizens to provide campaign strategy and messaging advice to Republican candidates in the 2014 midterm elections although one of the firm's attorneys warned that it was violating U.S. laws limiting foreign involvement in elections. Bannon. meanwhile, supervised tests of the potency of anti-establishment messages. They included "drain the swamp" and "deep state," which would become Trump mantras the following year after he announced his improbable candidacy.
The firm's mission, in the words of a former employee, became fighting "a culture war in America" by using psychological profiling to target voters with propaganda and win elections.
Cambridge Analytica's first big electoral success was working for Leave.EU, Nigel Farage's Brexit campaign group, which was the major force behind the historic June 2016 referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
For the 2016 U.S. election, it eventually created about 30 million voter profiles out of a base of 230 million profiles.
Beginning in 2015, Cambridge Analytica worked for Ted Cruz, whom Bannon backed and Mercer supported with over $40 million in contributions in the Republican presidential primary race. Nix has boasted that its data -- ironically -- helped the Texas senator beat Trump in the Iowa primary.
When Trump became the nominee, Cambridge Analytica pitched its services to Parscale and on June 23, 2016 signed a contract under which it was to be paid $6 million by the Trump campaign to team with it. By that time, Bannon had become Trump's chief strategist, a role he reprised in the White House until he went rogue and lost the financial backing of Robert and Rebekah Mercer.
"We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump's extraordinary win," Nix chortled the day after the election.
Never one to miss an opportunity to dig a bigger hole for himself, Trump weighed into the controversy on Thursday, tweeting "Remember when they were saying, during the campaign, that Donald Trump is giving great speeches and drawing big crowds, but he is spending much less money and not using social media as well as Crooked Hillary's large and highly sophisticated staff? Well, not saying that anymore!"
|BRYAN BEDDER / GETTY-CONCORDIA SUMMIT|
The first part of the Channel 4 exposé has gotten all the attention because of Nix's seamy sales pitch, but there was a second part in which the Cambridge Analytica CEO says that he has met Trump "many times" and boasted about the firm's role in the election. One of those times might have been a secret meeting at Trump's golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
"We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting," Nix says. "We ran all the digital campaign, the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy."
Also caught on the Channel 4 undercover camera were Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica's political division, and Mark Taylor, the firm's chief data officer, both of whom appear to suggest that the firm coordinated its activities with outside political groups such as super PACs and used proxy organizations, which might be campaign finance law violations.
Turnbull explained that the firm "puts information into the bloodstream of the Internet" and then watches it spread. He claims credit for a notorious "Crooked Hillary" ad put out by a pro-Trump, Mercer-backed super PAC called Make America Number 1.
"We made hundreds of different kinds of creative, and we put it online," Turnbull says.
"Donald Trump lost the popular vote by three million votes, but won the Electoral College vote," says Taylor. "That's down to the data and the research. If you did your rallies in the right locations, you moved more people out in those key swing states on Election Day, that's how he won the election."
Clinton herself is interviewed in the second part.
"The real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely," she says. "If they were getting advice from, lets say Cambridge Analytica, or someone else, about, 'O.K., here are the 12 voters in this town in Wisconsin, that's whose Facebook pages you need to be on to send these messages' -- that indeed would be very disturbing."
The Russian connection is strengthened if not necessarily proven by Cambridge University prof Kogan, who before hiring himself out to Cambridge Analytica performed a research project for the Russian government. Cambridge Analytica itself gave a briefing on American elections to top executives of Russian oil giant Lukoil, many of whom have close ties to Putin. And whistleblower Wylie suspects -- although cannot prove -- that data collected and used by Cambridge Analytica may have fallen into Russian hands.
Then there is the indictment of 13 Russians and a St. Petersburg-based troll farm that targeted American voters with Facebook messages by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and intriguing but unconfirmed reports that Cambridge Analytica was sent data targeting and propaganda messages through SVB, one of two Russian banks that inexplicably were linked to a computer server in Trump Tower.
Cambridge Analytica's offerings were candy for other conservatives.
The super PAC run by John Bolton, Trump's replacement for the sacked H. R. McMaster and his third national security adviser in 14 months in office, was one of Cambridge Analytica's earliest customers and has paid it $1.1 million since 2014 for "research," according to the Center for Public Integrity's review of campaign finance records. That included developing psychological profiles of voters with data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users, or "behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging," as one of Bolton's contracts with the firm puts it.
"The Bolton PAC was obsessed with how America was becoming limp wristed and spineless and it wanted research and messaging for national security issues," Wylie said. "That really meant making people more militaristic in their worldview. That's what they said they wanted, anyway."
It is possible that Cambridge Analytica's psychographic profile is overrated, and Parscale has slammed the firm on Twitter for taking credit for Trump's victory.
And while I personally believe that Facebook is a cancer and Zuckerberg's non-apology on Wednesday about protecting Facebook data was pathetic, some of the criticism pertaining to it does have the feel of blaming the messenger. After all, Clinton ran a lousy campaign while Trump's success has long been based on cheating. And while he cheated again in grabbing the biggest prize of all, a goodly number of the 62 million people who voted for him didn't have to be brainwashed, although many people in the news media seemed to be because of the slavish and uncritical coverage Trump received.
Cambridge Analytica's parent company -- defense contractor Strategic Communications Laboratories Group -- made its nut by selling disinformation campaigns that it boasts help foment coups. It is under scrutiny for its role in elections in Kenya and Nigeria and other nations we once called Third World countries, which it used as test beds because they lacked he legal ad technical infrastructure to fend off the strategies eventually employed in the U.K. and U.S.
SLC Group also has won contracts with the U.S. State Department and has tried to interest the Defense Department in buying its services.
"It's insane," Wylie said. "The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It's like Nixon on steroids."
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