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The New Propaganda
What are the new weapons in the arsenal of influence?
Cambridge Analytica once bragged of its ability to target voters with ads based on their psychological traits in order to manipulate them better. Whether that worked has been the subject of raging debate, but now you can see those targeted ads for yourself, courtesy of documents leaked by a whistleblower earlier this week.
The disgraced British political consultancy is best known for working for Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. But it also worked in 2014 for the SuperPAC of John Bolton, a longtime Republican adviser who has held high-profile positions in several Republican administrations. At the time Bolton was working to support Republican candidates for the Senate, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Cambridge Analytica used proprietary data, some that it stole from Facebook, to determine the psychological makeup of voters. Using that data, the company assigned a score to each voter based on five established personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It then tailored ads accordingly and targeted those voters with them.
The company derived much of its data from millions of Americans’ Facebook “likes,” illicitly exfiltrated from the social networking platform. It’s not clear if the work for Bolton’s SuperPAC also relied on that same Facebook data.
Research from Stanford psychologist Michael Kosinski in 2013 revealed that Facebook likes can be used to somewhat accurately predict personality. And a later study showed that ads designed to target particular personality traits are more effective than ones not targeted using psychographics. But Lyle Ungar, a University of Pennsylvania professor who researches the psychology of social media use, said that study dealt with ads for products, not politics—and the overall rate of people clicking on psychographically-targeted ads was still small. So the jury is still out on whether Cambridge Analytica’s method actually worked.
Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO, gave a presentation in 2016 in which he detailed how the company could tweak political ads to target personality types. Now, the documents leaked by a former Cambridge Analytica employee show what this looked like in practice, revealing five different ads that the Bolton SuperPAC directed at people who scored high in each of the five personality traits. Quartz has not independently authenticated the documents, but they link to authentic videos posted by the Bolton SuperPAC’s YouTube channel.
The ads all sought to boost the candidacy of Tillis by highlighting national security, presumably on the theory that his opponent, then-senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, was weak on that issue. It’s not clear if the ads ran online, on TV, or both.
Here’s an ad targeted at voters who were deemed “neurotic” by Cambridge Analytica’s methods.
According to the OCEAN personality model, on which the company based its personality traits, “neuroticism” is a measurement of how much you tend to worry. Cambridge Analytica played to the anxious temperament of neurotic types in this ad by emphasizing the growing international risks and need for strong, stable leaders in the United States. The ad juxtaposed pictures of violent chaos, presumably overseas, with a picture of a young boy waving an American flag.
It’s unclear if the ad was more effective than one targeting voters more generally, but Cambridge Analytica bragged that the ads worked. Some 34% of the voters the company identified as neurotic and who were shown the ad said national security was their most important issue, compared to just 22% of those in a more general control group. That would indicate the company’s strategy to better target voters worked. Whether those voters then voted for Tillis is anyone’s guess. But he is now a US senator representing North Carolina.
A second personality group, categorized as conscientious, had a similar bump, but the leaked documents don’t include any results for the other three groups, so it’s hard to know if the strategy succeeded across all the personality traits the company used.
“Facebook allowed [Cambridge Analytica] to combine different data sources in a way that allowed them to understand voters maybe better than voters themselves did,” Dietram Scheufele, a science of communication professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Quartz when the scandal first broke. But that doesn’t mean they were necessarily able to change minds. And, from the outside, there is no means of verifying Cambridge Analytica’s claims of effectiveness. “The algorithms that led to their conclusions no longer exist. The data has changed. The population has changed and so on,” Scheufele said.
Whether or not it worked, Cambridge Analytica claimed victory. “Bolton Super PAC campaign was able to cut through the noise and deliver messages that had a real impact in sending Thom Tillis to the US Senate,” it wrote after the election.
Cambridge Analytica has since declared bankruptcy and representatives from the company couldn’t be reached for comment. Sarah Tinsley, the director of John Bolton SuperPAC, declined to comment.
Below are the ads meant to appeal to people with the other four personality traits.
Agreeableness: “A Safer World for Our Children”
“I’ve worked together with world leaders and important foreign policy thinkers on both sides of the aisle,” Bolton says in the ad. He continues: “And that’s left me with one fundamental concern, leaving a stronger America and a safer world for our children.” Agreeable people tend to value community and societal needs. This ad emphasizes Bolton’s (and in turn Tillis’) own agreeable traits by highlighting his work with politicians across the aisle.
In the leaked document, Cambridge Analytica explained:
“This ad targets people who are high in agreeableness, who are caring and want the best everyone. It makes the case to the viewer that supporting candidates who prioritize national security is the responsible thing if we’re to leave a safer and stronger America for our children.”
Openness: “Refugee — Support Thom Tillis”
People high in openness tend to gravitate toward new ideas and change and have an interest in the wider world. This ad links national security and investment in the military with instability abroad, and tells the viewer that by voting for a national security candidate they can help bring positive change to the world.
“We can elect brave decisive allies who will protect our allies abroad,” the ad says, portraying refugees from Iraq and Syria as people in need of protection.
Extraversion: “Leadership – Support Thom Tillis for US Senate”
People who score high in extraversion tend to admire energetic, decisive actions. So this ad is built around the concept of “leadership” in different spheres of American society.
“We want leaders who provide a clear vision and have the courage to see it through,” Bolton says in the ad. “Thom understands the importance of US leadership in the world today, he believes in American exceptionalism unlike some in Washington. He’ll project us strength at home and abroad, that’s the kind of leadership we need.”
Conscientiousness: “A Promise to Keep American Strong For Our Children”
Conscientious people are collected, orderly and traditional, and they admire the same qualities in their leaders. Another Cambridge Analytica document later said that the people shown this ad were identified as both highly conscientious and highly agreeable, which is why this line from Bolton was included: “I learned that our national security is something that should cut across political lines.”
Cambridge Analytica’s personality-targeting tactics are now standard practice in political marketing. Last year, Quartz uncovered an international data firm that literally copied Cambridge Analytica’s presentation and presented the same methods to clients. While it may seem invasive to predict voters’ personality type and target political ads accordingly, there are no US laws that prohibit such practices. The leaked Bolton SuperPAC ads are a glimpse of how these methods work. And while Cambridge Analytica is no longer in business, their tactics are very much alive.