Let’s start with something we can all agree on: Cambridge Analytica was bad. Very bad. Super bad. But if you were looking for a good-news ending to the story of how user data was corrupted, how the Facebook platform profited from it, and how Donald Trump’s campaign was driven by this corruption, it wouldn’t be hard to think that all’s well that ends well. You’d be wrong.
As CNBC reported: “The political research firm with ties to the Donald Trump campaign has been caught in a whirlwind of privacy and data collection allegations in recent months. Cambridge Analytica was accused of improperly gaining access to the sensitive user information of as many as 87 million Facebook users.” The plot was exposed, and Cambridge Analytica was closed down.
While Cambridge Analytica was funded by the billionaire hedge fund operator Robert Mercer and Trump insider and then-Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon, it turns out there’s no shortage of Libertarian billionaires putting data mining and targeting to work. David Koch, who has been funding ultra-right-wing conservative weaponry, has a company leading the pack. “Koch Industries is a huge oil conglomerate. With estimated revenue of about $40 billion last year, Koch is bigger than Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, and AT&T,” writes Public Integrity.
Over the last decade, big data and microtargeting have revolutionized political communications. And Koch industries stands at the forefront of that revolution — investing billions in data aggregation, machine learning, software engineering, and Artificial Intelligence optimization. Among the most effective, and little known, is a firm called i360.
The Kochs got into the data space by developing the Themis Trust program for the 2010 midterms. In 2011 they folded Themis into a data competitor it acquired, i360.
And just to make sure i360 dominated conservative campaigns, the Kochs provide voter data at a loss. The data mining is powerful, as Politico explains: “Spending more than $50 million in cash over the past four years, i360 links voter information with consumer data purchased from credit bureaus and other vendors. Information from social networks is blended in, along with any interaction the voter may have had with affiliated campaigns and advocacy groups. Then come estimated income, recent addresses, how often a person has voted, and even the brand of car they drive. Another i360 service slices and dices information about TV viewing to help campaigns target ads more precisely and cost-efficiently.”
So, what is the actual goal of Koch Industries? “They’ve been very transparent about what they’re trying to do, and I think a lot of people don’t believe them,” says Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson. “They want to replace political parties.”
Here’s the scariest part of all: It’s probably all legal. Unlike the Facebook Analytica hack, i360 is using the techniques of surveillance capitalism.
As reported in The Intercept, “Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn aired at least four different television advertisements and a wave of social media advertisements focused on immigration, often with false or inflammatory language. She ended up beating out Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, who had been leading in the polls for months.”
i360 developed “140 unique segments,” demographic profiles, “against which the campaign delivered millions of impressions across several different platforms including Google and Facebook.” Candidates could “tailor their messaging to ensure they were talking about the issues that mattered to each voter.”
The scale of the data and its targeting is stunning. i360 says that the Blackburn campaign shaped 3 million voter contact calls, 1.5 million doors knocked, $8.4 television ad dollars, and 314,000 campaign text messages. If you didn’t see them, that’s because you weren’t part of the narrow target assigned to each message. Blackburn won.
“The party’s failure to keep up in the data arms race is particularly embarrassing,” wrote Harry Cheadle on bluetent.us. “As recently as 2012, the Obama reelection campaign was perceived as having a cutting-edge data operation. So how did the Democrats lose ground to the Republicans, and what’s the plan to get it back?”
Voter data may be lacking, but the Republican’s willingness to use data with aggressive tactics via i360 and others may be more of a roadmap to future victories.
As explained by FT.com, “A look at Facebook’s library of political ads in 2020 shows thousands of Trump campaign ads, many almost identical – but using subtly different language. Democrats for example are variously described as ‘radical,’ ‘partisan’ or ‘corrupt.’ Sometimes they are not mentioned at all but [replaced by] ‘Nancy’ – a reference to the Democratic Speaker of the House Pelosi.” Donald Trump posted 465,690 variations of ads. Bernie Sanders posted 78,084, according to the FT.
Surveillance marketing is creepy in any instance, but when you marry it with ultra-right-wing candidates, the results can change races, and even undermine democracy.
It’s not about one bad actor. It’s about the pervasive exploitation of personal data and players like Koch Brother and the even murkier Data Trust. If the information battlefield is the future of elections, the weapon of choice is data — and religious right Republicans seem far better armed.