After months of polling in the middle of the Republican pack, presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently leaped ahead to first place in Iowa and second place behind Donald Trump in national polls. The Texas senator may have pulled ahead of the gaggle by mining data on “tens of millions of” Facebook users, reports the Guardian. The information was reportedly gathered by Cambridge Analytica, a data company working exclusively for Cruz’s campaign–and was obtained largely without the knowledge of Facebook users.
As the Guardian reports, Cambridge Analytica recruited Cambridge University researchers to “gather detailed psychological profiles about the U.S. electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting U.S. Facebook users built with an online survey.” The company is backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund manager and major Republican donor who has funneled money into Cruz’s campaign, and has been paid a minimum of $750,000 so far this year for its services.
Cambridge Analytica compiles psychological data by culling Facebook “likes,” which it uses to pair user traits with voter data. In 2014, its parent company allegedly worked with Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at Cambridge who used Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace Mechanical Turk to amass data from a slew of Facebook profiles.The Mechanical Turk users were paid $1 in exchange for taking a survey that would grant access to their profile; this also allowed Kogan to access the profiles of their friends, which vastly increased his data set.
That data was then used to construct personality models, which were based on the “big five” traits that make up what is called the OCEAN scale: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The service Cambridge Analytica provides to politicians like Cruz allows them to “use the OCEAN scale in shaping highly targeted campaign messages,” according to the Guardian.
Using data analysis in this way, to better understand and target voters, is the “Obama model,” Cruz previously told the Guardian. A Cruz spokesman also told the Guardian that, in regard to Cambridge Analytica’s services, he was under the impression that “all the information is acquired legally and ethically with the permission of the users when they sign up to Facebook.”
Hiring a third party to do the campaign’s dirty work, so to speak, is a way for candidates like Cruz to circumvent what could be an ethical gray area. Fellow Republican candidate Ben Carson has also turned to Cambridge Analytica for similar work–$220,000 of it–and it’s very likely Democratic candidates have done the same, albeit with their own resources.