Ted Cruz’s campaign, ostensibly speaking, has a major leg up on most of the other candidates: An in-house team of data scientists, funded by a billionaire supporter, analyzing the data of tens of millions of unwitting American Facebook users. And yet, people still find him deeply unlikeable.
(“I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book,” Cruz’s freshman year roommate has said. “Stop asking us stupid questions and do something productive with your time,” say my parents.)
That kind of data isn’t cheap. The company spearheading Cruz’s data analysis, Cambridge Analytica, is owned in part by Robert Mercer—a Cruz supporter who threw $11 million at the pro-Cruz SuperPac, Keep the Promise I. Not that it’s all charity—according to the Guardian, Cruz SuperPacs supported by Mercer and his family have paid the company at least $2.5 million this election season. And so far, Cruz’s campaign has reportedly pitched in an additional $750,000.
And they’ve given the Cruz campaign a lot to work with: According to the Guardian, the British company has information on millions of Facebook-using Americans, thanks to a process called data seeding. But it seems not all of it was above board, informed consent-wise.
The academic used Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to access a large pool of Facebook profiles, hoovering up tens of thousands of individuals’ demographic data – names, locations, birthdays, genders – as well as their Facebook “likes”, which offer a range of personal insights.
This was achieved by recruiting MTurk users by paying them about one dollar to take a personality questionnaire that gave access to their Facebook profiles. This raised the alarm among some participants, who flagged Kogan for violating MTurk’s terms of service. “They want you to log into Facebook and then download a bunch of your information,” complained one user at the time.
Crucially, Kogan also captured the same data for each person’s unwitting friends. For every individual recruited on MTurk, he harvested information about their friends, meaning the dataset ballooned significantly in size. Research shows that in 2014, Facebook users had an average of around 340 friends
By summer 2014, Kogan’s company had created an expansive and powerful dataset. His business partner boasted on LinkedIn that their private outfit, Global Science Research (GSR), “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States – for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”.
The Cruz campaign reportedly used that data to build models of voters using “six key personality types,” some of whom, presumably, could be persuaded to vote for Cruz.
That a company figured out a way to harvest our information freely posted on Facebook is unsettling, though hardly remarkable. But the surprising outcome is this: Despite what the Guardian terms “an intensified collision of billionaire financing and digital targeting on the campaign trail,” Ted Cruz is still a deeply unappealing candidate.