Russian Analyst: Cambridge Analytica, Palantir and Quid Helped Trump Win 2016 Election
For the American public, the discussion of the Russian influence on the 2016 election is driven by leaks and surreal news stories. In Russia, the conversation is about how Trump won on his own and how the Americans are wrongly focused on the Russian role. One particular analyst whose views get a fair amount of traffic in Russia alleges that the Trump campaign hired three private intelligence and data-mining companies, Cambridge Analytica, Palantir and Quid which armed his campaign with digital media strategies, customized according to the attitudes of every single U.S. voter.
The grand strokes of the account allege that Stephen K. Bannon and Peter Thiel brought the Trump campaign insights on the mood of the American voters produced by cutting edge data-mining, analysis and visualization capabilities of Cambridge Analytica, Palantir and Quid. Larina suggests that the data aggregated by Palantir and visualized by Quid was “transferred” to Cambridge Analytica. Palantir and Quid are both U.S.-based firms, while Cambridge Analytica is a British data-miner with Bannon on the board and Rebekah Mercer as a major shareholder, whose parent company, SCL Group, has worked with governments from Pakistan to Indonesia and the U.S. to conduct mass psychological operations (“psyops”) and change people’s behavior.
The analyst is Elena Larina, an author, criminologist, and business owner, who contributes regularly (and patriotically) to state media and has an intelligence blog. She also served as an expert for the Russian Interior Ministry, equivalent to the U.S. FBI. Larina is interested in psychometrics, the science of measuring mental processes, which has become a potent weapon in the hands of politicians and investors. Larina’s blog advertises her intelligence-gathering and analysis skills, and for much of the past year it’s been focused on Trump, profiling him and his advisors in order to reveal how their personalities, relationships and histories might be useful as a source of leverage.
According to Larina, Cambridge Analytica took the insights of Palantir and Quid and supplemented it with analysis of the entire U.S. electorate through the Facebook profiles of every single voter. Thus, Trump’s digital media strategy for the crucial last months of the campaign was carried out with the collaboration of these three entities, in addition to other strategists and data scientists somehow identified by Larina and her informants.
Larina’s two part series has been circulating in the Russian blogosphere since the inauguration, recommended to one blogger as a “tip” by Oleg Matveychev, a Russian politician and PR consultant who has worked for the Kremlin as a domestic political adviser. Given Matveychev’s occupations, the information may be intended by the Kremlin to distract attention from its involvement in the American election, but it bears reporting with the hope of confirmation or debunking the narrative as Russian dezinformatsiya. However, if it bears out, it may indicate that Kremlin-associated sources know more about how Trump became President than the American public.
Palantir to Trump: You can win the Swing States
Larina writes, “To grow from the ugly duckling to the black swan, Bannon and Thiel used Palantir…” which “[makes it possible] to determine abnormal states…” Peter Thiel co-founded Palantir Technologies, which provides data integration software to intelligence agencies. Palantir identified eleven favorable states to target and, in particular, five traditionally Democratic states where Palantir’s analysis indicated abnormalities. Palantir did not respond to various requests for comment.
Quid to Trump: Focus on the Mid-West
Then, the data was turned over to Quid, which takes a holistic, ecological view of data as a community of organisms. Through his Founder’s Fund, Thiel partially funded Quid, which analyzes language in search of anomalies and trends for political campaigns and the private sector. Larina describes Quid’s goal of locating the areas in a system most sensitive to shocks by referring to Ray Bradbury’s story of The Time Traveler where the protagonist steps on a butterfly while in the past and comes back to discover that stepping on the butterfly caused everything in the future to be different. Quid seeks those places where relatively small pressure can achieve a breakthrough. Quid forecasted that Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida had the potential for big results.
On November 9, the day after the election, Quid listed various sources in a post on its website suggesting that Trump’s victory was “hiding in plain sight.” Quid responded in an email, “We have not had any contact with the Trump campaign.” Another employee of Quid responded, “We don’t directly do business with the Trump campaign. Let me know if you have any other questions.” When I followed up with a question if Quid, perchance, may have worked indirectly for the campaign, another employee responded in his stead, “Quid didn’t do any analysis, directly or indirectly, for the Trump campaign.”
Cambridge Analytica to Trump: Use Twitter and Facebook to bombard disaffected voters
Larina builds on the reports of European journalists reported in the section on Cambridge Analytica, detailing Bannon’s background, Jared Kushner’s role in the procurement of digital strategists and the strategies they developed for Twitter and Facebook. She portrays Bannon as a banker turned propagandist whose express purpose and goal for many years has been to impose a dictatorship by a nationalist minority.
The role of Cambridge Analytica in the Trump campaign was reported in early December by Das Magazin. Larina criticizes this and reporting by Ukrainian journalists three days later because both portrayed Cambridge Analytica as engaged in what she describes as “miserable targeted advertising or spam calls for support,” like Hillary. In fact, the strategy of Cambridge Analytica was much more targeted and “high touch” engagement, mapping communities considered vital to bring about a Trump victory in the six states indicated by Palantir and Quid. Larina indicates that Cambridge Analytica purchased data from Acxiom, which has data on more than one billion people around the world. A post on Medium.com added Experian PLC, Datalogix and Epsilon to the list, saying the Trump campaign purchased this data directly. With this, according to Larina, Cambridge Analytica identified the key neighborhoods and villages, even down to each neighborhood’s own networks. The campaign recruited locals to communicate and whip votes on their behalf. Cambridge Analytica did not respond to requests for comment.
Larina points to Bannon, Kushner, Brad Parscale and Naren Ramakrishnan in the formation of the Trump movement based on a database dubbed “Project Alamo.” Ramakrishnan is a professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Discovery Analytics Center, leading the EMBERS project which was, according to Newsweek in 2015, “leading the arms race to turn big data into forecasts that U.S. policymakers and intelligence agencies can use.” The now-famous insights weaponized into campaign strategies that negative news travels faster than positive news and that things happen in social media before they register in the news media are discoveries from Ramakrishnan’s research.
Larina referred to Parscale’s statement in a press interview: “I had a few great scientists-advisers who brought us the victory,” but she noted that Ramakrishnan and others had not been recognized publicly for their role in the campaign, vaguely attributing her knowledge to “available information.” Cambridge Analytica did not respond to a request for comment. Ramakrishnan, who told Defenseone.com that he had his own theory about Trump’s victory, referring to low probability black swan events, like Larina, did not respond to an emailed inquiry regarding his contact with the Trump campaign. In an email, Brad Parscale dismissed Larina’s claims, saying, “[Larina] has no clue what [she is] talking about,” and stated that he didn’t know who Ramakrishnan was.
Larina’s Credibility and Russian Intelligence Connections
Larina could be in the know regarding political consultants who specialize in competitive intelligence and psychometrics because she’s a headhunter specializing in tech and an enthusiast of those fields, which is obvious from her explanations of the differences between Cambridge Analytica, Palantir and Quid. It is also possible that she may have informants with privileged access to information. Larina is a member of the Community of Practitioners of Competitive Intelligence (SPKR), an association of experts in business intelligence. A membership list from one of their older websites contains professors, economists, and directors of security for heavy industry as well as spies who worked in the Foreign Service Bureau (FSB) and its predecessor, the KGB.
At the top of the old website of the SPKR, it says, “We follow the laws of the Russian Federation.” They have a new website, and several fora, where they talk about political and economic developments, share news, discuss methods and debate the finer points of law and history. Larina has been associated with this community for years and has worked for the Kremlin, using her contacts to start a headhunting business focused on the tech industry, which also furnishes her with a wide network of potential informants who span the globe and are experts in intelligence gathering. Larina’s sources on the Trump campaign’s political consultants were reportedly from various countries. She did not respond to requests for comment.
It is well known that Peter Thiel advised the campaign, but not that Palantir or Quid were involved. Quid denies this. If either or both were involved, the public should know about the deals, how they were executed, the terms of exchange, whether and how much compensation was paid. Peter Thiel now vets Trump’s cabinet appointments, so it’s worth finding out if his immense influence is due to services for which he was never formally compensated. In addition, it would be good to know if and how closely his companies have dealt with the Kremlin, which has been anxious to get access to Palantir’s technology. Years ago, the FSB overtly made their desire to do business with Palantir clear to one of Palantir’s partners.
Already, the American media and the Senate Intelligence Committee are asking whether private companies helped the Trump campaign collaborate with the Russians and if Cambridge Analytica may have been involved. Journalists have noticed that the Russian bots were engaged in the same kind of voter disengagement efforts as Cambridge Analytica at the precinct level. Bannon is under FBI scrutiny for his role at Cambridge Analytica, on the Trump team and his connections to Breitbart, which operated in concert with Russian state media outlets parroting fake news.
Thiel told Forbes that it was “hard to overstate and hard to summarize Jared’s role in the campaign… Jared was effectively the chief operating officer” of the Trump campaign. Kushner would know exactly where data came from and where it went, including if any was shared with or received from Russian interests involved in subverting the U.S. elections. Brad Parscale told reporters, “We knew exactly where 14 million voters were that we needed in key swing states… Jared was an incredible leader to make this all happen…” It’s an open question where the data came from, but it’s clear who knows.