News and Commentary

Narrative Fail: CBS Drops Bomb On Trump-Cambridge Analytica Claims

A new report by CBS News poured some cold water on the media firestorm sparked by The Guardian’s exposé on the Trump-connected Cambridge Analytica firm’s efforts to gather data on Facebook users. Though the Trump campaign did work with the firm, CBS reports, it quickly “phased out” its partnership with the group for the general election and did not use any of the “psychographic” data at the center of The Guardian’s report.

On Sunday, The Guardian published a lengthy investigative piece based on the claims of whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who says he “made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” for Cambridge Analytica before he left in 2014 but now says he regrets heading up the effort. The firm, Wylie said, unethically accessed Facebook data from some 50 million users to create profiles based on personality type for targeted campaigning. The report set off a series of damning headlines, though many pointed out that efforts to use social media data to create profiles had been widely praised by the same outlets back in 2012 when the Obama campaign likewise mined social media data for campaigning purposes.

Though The Guardian and Wylie made much of the Facebook data collected by the firm in 2014, and suggested the Trump campaign used it, CBS reports that none of the data obtained under Wylie was actually used:

The Trump campaign never used the psychographic data at the heart of a whistleblower who once worked to help acquire the data’s reporting — principally because it was relatively new and of suspect quality and value. The profiling approach utilized by Cambridge Analytica allowed it to predict the voting likelihoods of individual people based on personality, the firm claimed.

As for the partnership between the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica, CBS suggests that the campaign’s reliance on CA’s data has been overblown by The Guardian and other outlets.

The Trump campaign paid the firm $5.9 million for data collection services and used some of its data through the end of the primaries, but then phased it out, instead using the RNC’s data, which it determined to be “vastly more accurate,” for most of the general election campaigning. The campaign had only contracted with CA as “a hedge against the RNC, in case it wouldn’t share its data,” CBS reports.

The crucial decision was made in late September or early October when Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s digital guru on the 2016 campaign, decided to utilize just the RNC data for the general election and used nothing from that point from Cambridge Analytica or any other data vendor. The Trump campaign had tested the RNC data, and it proved to be vastly more accurate than Cambridge Analytica’s, and when it was clear the RNC would be a willing partner, Mr. Trump’s campaign was able to rely solely on the RNC.

CBS notes that the campaign used CA’s data for one large TV ad buy and “some targeted digital advertising,” but relied on the RNC’s data for its main get-out-the-vote campaign. The Trump campaign’s contract with CA ended on election day, and Parscale says the firm has played no role in the re-election campaign process, which he is heading up.

Media attention on Cambridge Analytica has ratcheted up this week. On Monday, Channel 4 published a sting video showing key members of the firm discussing shady campaign practices.

Related: Cambridge Analytica And The Campaign To Destroy Conservatives On Social Media