Thus does Alexander Nix, chief executive of the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, outline the fundamentals of persuasion in the digital age to Brittany Kaiser. Kaiser, his head of business development, would subsequently turn whistleblower and is now the author of “Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.”
“Targeted,” which will be published Oct. 22, is a rarity: a book that is both important and gripping. It is Kaiser’s account of her time working for SCL Group and its spinoff company Cambridge Analytica. And it is a vital story to tell. CA, as it is known, is widely believed to have aided Donald Trump’s election in 2016 by illicitly harvesting the personal data of millions of Facebook users to better target them with political advertising. Election chicanery and online malfeasance: “Targeted” could not be more contemporary.
But what makes Kaiser’s book so vital is that it covers far more than just this. Beyond the story of the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, it is about the experience that awaits all of us in a society that has reconfigured itself around a new and overarching source of power: data.
The star of the first 100 or so pages isn’t Kaiser but Nix — dapper, polished, aristocratic and almost absurdly suave. The Eton-educated Nix, with a face of utter privilege, is forever jetting off to exotic locations, buying modern art, schmoozing clients (and Kaiser) and, inevitably, drinking champagne “while still astride his pony, like a prince.”
More than impeccable breeding, though, and more than wealth, Nix has vision, and it is all to do with Big Data and analytics. For Nix, in the digital age, data is “the new oil” and data collection an “arms race.” It’s 2015 and they are living, he tells Kaiser, in the “honeymoon period” of a completely new industry. The United States, with its lax data protection laws, is the “Wild West.” There are claims to be staked and data to mine.
And mine it they do. When Kaiser starts work, she is told that Cambridge Analytica databases “held between two thousand and five thousand individual data points (pieces of personal information) on every individual in the United States over the age of eighteen . . . some 240 million people.” She is understandably staggered.
But, as Nix explains to her, merely having Big Data isn’t the solution. You have to know what to do with it, and this, very simply, involves more scientific and precise ways of putting people into boxes — “Democrat,” “environmentalist,” “optimist” and so on — before identifying and sorting them using behavioral psychology. CA’s employees were, as Kaiser would pitch, specialists in “the science of behavioral change communication.” They took “behavioral and clinical and experimental psychology and combined that with world-class data analytics.”
How did they get that data? Well, from a variety of sources, including the credit agency Experian and the search engine Google. Most preciously, though, they got it from Facebook. They would use lighthearted quizzes that the firm’s employees put together — what seemed like innocuous fun designed to tease out your musical taste or sexual likes was in reality, for CA, just a source of more digital “gold.”
As Kaiser is drawn deeper into Nix’s world, becoming the firm’s business development director, the cast of characters becomes familiar — and disturbing. When CA searches for American political clients, Kaiser meets Steve Bannon (who greets her and Nix wearing just a white T-shirt and a pair of old boxers) and, inevitably, Trump. Nix confidently assures Kaiser that the real reason Trump is “running” for office is to “create the conditions for the launch of something called Trump TV.”
The more the story goes on, the more Kaiser gets sucked in as the company uses the now-infamous “This is your digital life” Facebook survey, presented as if for academic use, to target hundreds of thousands of Facebook users. Critically, the app was designed to collect not only the personal information of those who took the survey but also the data of all the people in their Facebook networks. Cambridge Analytica acquired data from millions of Facebookers. It was a triumph.
Eventually, journalists caught on. Stories broke, and Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was forced to publicly apologize for the Cambridge Analytica “issue” on CNN. But the scandal was too big. In April 2018, Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress, where he groveled further and admitted what was apparently the full extent to which Facebook had undermined people’s privacy.
Kaiser, meanwhile, was on her own journey. After the U.S. election she understood the ramifications of what she had done. She turned whistleblower, testifying before the British Parliament and then helping special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The book, she says, is part of the same urge to make amends, which she does with aplomb. Kaiser knows how to tell a story (it helps to have such great material), and the prose is energetic and clear. Her style is, on occasion, jarring and labored: Her friend Chester is a “veritable walking, talking recommendation letter,” Nix a “veritable babe in the woods” and his list of clients a “veritable rogues’ gallery of nemeses.” She also too often settles for the cliche: People or things are never merely connected but “inextricably linked,” while things in opposition are, inevitably, “diametrically opposed.” But this rarely distracts from the message of a book that is urgent and profound.
And it is profound because it is ultimately a cautionary tale about the new data-centric world in which we live. We are all still vulnerable to data hacks; our privacy is still up for sale. And the 2020 election can be compromised as well if we continue to do nothing.
Midway through the book, after a particularly rigorous lecture on the degree to which everything we do or say is tracked online, Kaiser concludes her thoughts with a mere six words that underpin what is perhaps the book’s central message, and we would do well to remember it:
“You’re not paranoid. It’s all orchestrated.”
The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower's Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again