What Did Cambridge Analytica Do During The 2016 Election? The company says it was essential to President Trump's victory, but both Trump and other former clients are downplaying the role of its trademark psychological profiling.

What Did Cambridge Analytica Do During The 2016 Election?

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Donald Trump's presidential campaign paid millions of dollars to Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 election. So did Texas Senator Ted Cruz's campaign. Following reports that the company improperly collected data on 50 million Facebook users, both campaigns are downplaying the value of the information provided. NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Secretly recorded by Great Britain's Channel 4, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix sounded very nefarious talking about how his company works.


ALEXANDER NIX: We're used to operating through different vehicles in the shadows.

DETROW: When he spoke to NPR in the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Nix put a much more positive spin on his work.


NIX: We're appealing to the same demographic on the same issue, yet how we nuance this engagement is completely different.

DETROW: Nix was explaining one of Cambridge Analytica's most high-profile and controversial efforts - an attempt to group every American voter into different psychological personality profiles so that campaigns could specifically tailor their messages in different ways. In order to gain insight into voters' personality types, Cambridge Analytica paid an outside researcher to develop an app that offered users a detailed personality quiz. Here's how Nix described those surveys to NPR back in 2016.


NIX: A 120-question survey that seeks to probe personality, and we've rolled this out to literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across America.

DETROW: At the time, Nix told NPR that Cambridge Analytica took those survey results and paired the data up with other information it had collected about voters, things like voting history, purchase history, online activity and data from social media profiles. Nix said the goal was to figure out the habits and political views of different personality types so campaigns could communicate with different voters in different ways.


NIX: If I've talked to enough people who look like you in terms of what data they have, I'd be able to quantify your personality based on the discussions I've had with other people.

DETROW: This week, The New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica collected a lot of this information by breaking Facebook's rules. Because Facebook users logged into the app through their Facebook account, it collected details from their profiles. And Facebook's rules at the time allowed the app to suck up information about all those users' friends. That included education, location, the groups and pages they liked, their relationship status and where they worked.

The researcher who created the app was allowed to collect all this information. What he was not allowed to do was pass the information along to a third party instead of using it for research as had been promised. Facebook has now suspended Cambridge Analytica and the Cambridge researcher from the platform. But it's worth pointing out that scores of companies and campaigns are collecting similar information. University of North Carolina associate professor Daniel Kreiss says President Obama's 2012 campaign tapped into Facebook networks, too.

DANIEL KREISS: They were able to get data, supporters' social networks through a Facebook app in order to be reaching out to supporters to get them to talk to their friends in key states about supporting Obama and trying to get them to turn out to vote.

DETROW: Kreiss has written multiple books about the increasingly important role that data collection and large-scale voter targeting plays in politics. He says Facebook still hasn't figured out how to treat political advertising differently than commercial advertising.

KREISS: We're talking about the potential for actors to utilize that data in a way that goes against Facebook's own platform to potentially sway an election or at the very least have an impact on democratic outcomes.

DETROW: Let's get back to Cambridge Analytica's main goal, building psychological profiles of American voters. In 2016, the Cruz campaign used the approach, dividing voters into six different categories. But ultimately the campaign did not find the approach valuable. It stopped the personality profiling after the South Carolina primary. And according to a source close to the operation, President Trump's general election campaign never did any psychological profiling of voters. Because Trump had avoided spending money on staff during the primaries, Cambridge Analytica staffers had to focus on much more basic tasks like fundraising and voter turnout. Scott Detrow, NPR News.

MARTIN: This afternoon, the board of Cambridge Analytica said company CEO Alexander Nix had been suspended pending an investigation. In a statement, the board said the allegations surrounding Nix do not represent the values or operations of the firm.

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