Our digital footsteps are being used against us
Can our digital footprints and data be used to manipulate our political opinions? Yes, but it was never the intention of scientists. The irony, in a world led by an American President that’s against science of any other kind bar psychometrics or keeping power. In 2008 Dr David Stillwell and Dr Michal Kosinski were students at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, when they launched a Facebook application called MyPersonality app. The research focused on five personality traits known as OCEAN. Openness (how open are you to new experiences?), Conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), Extroversion (how sociable are you?), Agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?), and Neuroticism (are you easily upset?). They asked Facebook users psychometric questions such as these as well as psychological questions. This was done with a test called “The Big 5 test” and they asked users permission to use their Facebook profiles for their research. Users were given their personality profile in return and forty-percent of users agreed to share their Facebook profile data with them.
They expected maybe a few dozen users to fill in the questionnaire but they ended up getting over a million responses. Their data set combining the psychometric scores with Facebook profiles was the largest ever to be collected. Over the next four years they measured the OCEAN data and compared these with other data points such as Facebook “likes,” content shared and where they lived. In 2012 Dr Kosinski reported that with the data of 68 “likes” he was able to predict things such as whether the user was a Democratic or Republican supporter, with 85% accuracy. With constant refining and testing of this model Dr Kosinski was soon able to evaluate a personality with just 70 Facebook likes, learning more about the person than what the person’s friends knew about them. A couple of weeks after this Facebook changed “likes” so that they were private by default. This doesn’t stop data collectors, many apps and online quizzes today still require access to your private data before you can even take the personality tests. If you want to evaluate yourself based on your Facebook “likes,” I will provide links at the end of the article for Dr Kosinski’s website which you can then compare with an OCEAN questionnaire. The original project has finished as such but it is still open for research, you can even find Monash university from Australia on there as a collaborator.
Dr Kosinski realised that it wasn’t just about Facebook “likes” or even Facebook but that we also reveal things about ourselves when we’re not online. Our smartphone he concluded, is in itself a psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously. He worried what his research would mean in reverse and that essentially he had invented a people search engine that could possibly cause harm, rather than the original intentions of psychological research.
In 2014 Dr Kosinski was approached by a lecturer from Cambridge University’s psychology department. Dr Alexsandr Kogan, on behalf of a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) wanted access to the MyPersonality app. SCL was founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, a former Saatchi & Saatchi ad man with a penchant for psychology and behavioural profiling. He also established the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group to understand and potentially change people’s opinions in 1989. SCL has been involved in elections in Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Europe, Latin America and The Caribbean. It has also worked for the UK Ministry of defence, the US state department, Sandia and NATO. It states on its websites that its methodology is approved purely because of its involvement with the latter, not anything to do with their success rate or ethics. Cambridge Analytica (CA) is an offshoot of SCL and was founded in July 2014.
In the nineties, Mr Oakes employed two respected psychometrics professors, Professor Adrian Furnham and Professor Barrie Gunter. Both psychologists say that they were used by Mr Oakes to build credibility for his group. ‘I believe he is inappropriately using my name and reputation to further his career. He was unreliable and Prof. Gunter and I severed links with him’, Prof. Furnham wrote in an email. Prof. Gunter went further: ‘Adrian and I were running our own small company providing consultancy services. Nigel made contact with us while he was working for the event division of Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as we were concerned Behavioural Dynamics was simply the name of a company he founded”,Prof. Gunter said. “Nigel didn’t have any qualifications in psychology. To have credibility he needed an association with bonafide psychologists, which is part of the reason that he brought us on board. But we found that no matter how hard we tried to rein him in, he would make all kinds of claims that we felt that we couldn’t substantiate, and that is why we stopped working for him’.
In 2015 The Guardian reported that SCL found out about Dr Kosinski’s method from Dr Kogan in early 2014. After Dr Kogan was turned down by Dr Kosinski he established his own company called Global Science Research Ltd in May 2014. It also reported that he began working with SCL to deliver a “large research project” in the US. His stated aim was to get as close to every US Facebook user into their dataset as he could. He used Mechanical Turk (MTurk) which is Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, to access Facebook profiles. He recruited MTurk users by paying them around a dollar to take a personality questionnaire that also gave access to their Facebook profiles. He promised that their Facebook data would “only be used for research purposes” and would remain “anonymous and safe”. Some complained that he was violating MTurk terms of service. “They want you to log into Facebook and then download a bunch of your information,”was one complaint at the time. Dr Kogan also captured all of the data of each MTurk users’ friends and at that time Facebook users had an average of 340 friends each.
This data was then used to generate models of their personalities using the OCEAN scale. Within a just a few months dr Kogan’s business partner gloated on LinkedIn that their company “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States — for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”. Dr Kogan was unable in email to explain where all of the data came from as he was restricted by various confidentiality agreements and said that SCL was no longer a client. After Dr Kosinski read the Guardian reports he believed that Dr Kogan replicated his measurement tool and that he had sold it to SCL. Interestingly, Dr Kogan changed his name not long after this and is now known as Dr Spectre.
In November 2015, former Ukip leader and UK politician Nigel Farage, was supporting the “Leave European Union” campaign and announced that it had commissioned CA to support its online campaign. The results as we know now, is that Britain is leaving the European Union (EU). A record number of Google searches after the polls had closed asking ‘What happens if we leave the EU?’ suggests that many people didn’t know why they voted to leave or what the consequences of their vote meant.
CEO of CA, Alexander Nix describes their marketing success as being based on three elements: behavioural science using the OCEAN model, big data analysis and ad targeting. CA buys personal data from places like land registries, automobile data, shopping data, loyalty card data, club memberships, magazines that you read and what places of worship that you attend. They also use “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. There are data brokers such as Acxiom and Experian in the US for example, where you can get almost any personal data that you desire for a price. If you wanted to know where Indian women live for example, you can just buy it, phone numbers included. CA can then add this data to the electoral rolls of the Republican party alongside their OCEAN and social media data. “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America-220 million people” Mr Nix boasts. Which was exactly what Dr Kosinski feared.
“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT” was a telling tweet by then Presidential candidate, Donald Trump on the 18th August 2016. Robert Mercer is a billionaire that started out financially backing Ted Cruz in the Presidential race but when he fell out of the race he supported Mr Trump to the tune of $13.5 million. He was Mr Trump’s biggest donor. Mr Mercer started out his career with IBM as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He is credited with “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing — a science that went on to be key in developing today’s use of artificial intelligence. He later became CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money through algorithms on the financial markets. Nick Patterson, a British cryptographer, described how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer. “There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.” One of its funds Medallion, that manages its employees’ money is the most successful in the world. It’s generated $55 billion so far. Mr Mercer also likes to fund such things as climate change denialist think tank, The Heartland Institute and right-wing news site Breitbart News. In fact it was $10 million of his own funding that enabled Steve Bannon, who is now President Trump’s chief strategist, to set up Breitbart News. Mr Mercer also has a $10 million stake in CA.
Mr Nix has also explained how most of Donald Trump’s messaging during his election campaign was data driven. CA divided the US population into 32 personality types and focused on just 17 states. They discovered that a preference for cars being made in the US for example, was a pretty good indication that they were a potential Trump voter. Similar tactics were used with gun ownership on the show “House of Cards” in season four. The episode focused on government “terrorism” surveillance data being used to influence gun-toting voters opinions, for their own means.
CA registered in Australia before our federal election last year and several state elections. It hasn’t lodged any financial disclosures as yet in Australia. They have registered an Australian office at a property currently being redeveloped in Sydney in Maroubra, corporate filings show. Mr Nix and Matt Oczkowski will be in the country next week for ADMA as guest speakers at a data analytics conference. They will also be meeting with Liberal party officials. In a country that has 10 percent of the population in comparison to the US, I personally can’t see too much damage. But what I do take offence to is another country trying to affect our countries voting outcomes. It doesn’t matter if you are English, Russian or American you have no right to manipulate voting intentions and we must legislate for our sovereignty now. For those curious about what makes you or your friends tick, or a little bit of insight into your personality, please feel secure in trying the links below:
Apply Magic Sauce translates individuals’ digital footprints into psychological profiles. It generates a Big Five…applymagicsauce.com