We couldn't have timed it any better.
A few days after the news broke about how Cambridge Analytica came into possession of personal Facebook data for as many as 50 million people, Mother Jones published my months-long investigation in Cambridge and its work in US politics. I tried to write the story like a political and technological thriller, and I hope it reads that way.
Without giving too much away, I'll just say that all of my reporting led me to this conclusion: Cambridge Analytica's greatest talent had far less to do with its any actual services or products, and far more to do with wooing wealthy donors on a vision that never came to be.
Cloak and Data: The Real Story Behind Cambridge Analytica’s Rise and Fall
The secretive data firm said it could move the minds of American voters. That wasn’t its real victory.
Mother Jones | May/June 2018
1. “I can’t stand lying to you every day”
In the late summer of 2015, Chris Wilson, the director of research, analytics, and digital strategy for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, had a conversation with a contractor that left him furious. A widely respected pollster who had taken leave from his firm to work full time for Cruz, Wilson oversaw a team of more than 40 data scientists, developers, and digital marketers, one of the largest departments inside Cruz’s Houston-based operation. The Iowa caucuses were fast approaching, and the Cruz campaign had poured nearly $13 million into winning the opening contest of the primary season.
As the campaign laid the groundwork for Iowa, a sizable chunk of its spending—$4.4 million and counting—flowed to a secretive company with British roots named Cambridge Analytica. A relative newcomer to American politics, the firm sold itself as the latest, greatest entrant into the burgeoning field of political technology. It claimed to possess detailed profiles on 230 million American voters based on up to 5,000 data points, everything from where you live to whether you own a car, your shopping habits and voting record, the medications you take, your religious affiliation, and the TV shows you watch. This data is available to anyone with deep pockets. But Cambridge professed to bring a unique approach to the microtargeting techniques that have become de rigueur in politics. It promised to couple consumer information with psychological data, harvested from social-media platforms and its own in-house survey research, to group voters by personality type, pegging them as agreeable or neurotic, confrontational or conciliatory, leaders or followers. It would then target these groups with specially tailored images and messages, delivered via Facebook ads, glossy mailers, or in-person interactions. The company’s CEO, a polo-playing Eton graduate named Alexander Nix, called it “our secret sauce.”
As a rule, Nix said his firm generally steered clear of working in British politics to avoid controversy in its own backyard. But it had no qualms applying its mind-bending techniques to a foreign electorate. “It’s someone else’s political system,” explains one former Cambridge employee, a British citizen. “It’s not ours. None of us would ever consider doing what we were doing here.”
Brought to Cruz by two of the campaign’s biggest backers, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Cambridge Analytica was put in charge of the entire data and digital operation, embedding 12 of its employees in Houston. The company, largely owned by Robert Mercer, said it had something special for Cruz. According to marketing materials obtained by Mother Jones, it pitched a “revolutionary” piece of software called Ripon, an all-in-one tool that let a campaign manage its voter database, microtargeting efforts, door-to-door canvassing, low-dollar fundraising, and surveys. Ripon, Cambridge vowed, was “the future of campaigning.” (The name is a clever bit of marketing: Ripon is the small town in Wisconsin where the Republican Party was born.)
The Cruz campaign believed Ripon might give it an edge in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls. But the software wasn’t ready right away. According to former Cruz staffers, Wilson inquired about Ripon’s status daily. It was almost finished, he was repeatedly told. Weeks passed, then months. Finally, in August 2015, one of the Cambridge consultants in Houston came clean. Ripon “doesn’t exist,” he told Wilson, according to several former Cruz staffers. “It’ll never exist. I’ve just resigned because I can’t stand lying to you every day anymore.” The campaign had hired Cambridge in the belief it could use Ripon to help win Cruz the nomination; instead, it was paying millions of dollars to build the Ripon technology. “It was like an internal Ponzi scheme,” a former Cruz campaign official told me.