In a highly anticipated hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, lawmakers questioned Christopher Wylie, a former research director for the shadowy political data firm Cambridge Analytica, about the company’s history of privacy violations, its contacts with Russia, and its work with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. But an even more fundamental question formed the crux of the inquiry: Did all of the black magic Cambridge Analytica sold to clients, from politicians to defense agencies, really even work?
The hearing came just a day after The New York Times reported that the now shuttered company is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department in what appears to be a look at the company’s finances. In his written testimony, Wylie confirmed he had been contacted by the FBI and the DOJ, and was cooperating with their investigation.
In preparation for his testimony, Wylie sent the committee a 71-point list of concerns he has about Cambridge Analytica’s work and evidence he has to back up those concerns, including a lengthy section on Russia. According to Wylie, former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix once sent the Russian oil juggernaut Lukoil, which is sanctioned by the United States government, a white paper laying out all of the data Cambridge Analytica had on Americans.
‘Cambridge Analytica specialized in disinformation, spreading rumors, kompromat, and propaganda.’
Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower
If Nix was so freely sharing this information with Russian companies, wondered senator Dianne Feinstein, might it have also shared information with Russian operatives at the Internet Research Agency, which conducted a propaganda campaign online?
“I can’t say definitively that this had any relation to the IRA, but what I can say is a lot of noise was being made to companies and individuals who were connected to the Russian government,” Wylie said, noting that Cambridge Analytica had also conducted public opinion polling in the United States on Vladimir Putin. “To be clear, the only foreign leader who was tested while I was there was Vladimir Putin.”
Wylie also stressed that Cambridge Analytica posed a distinct threat to the countries where it worked. “The work of Cambridge Analytica is not equivalent to traditional marketing,” he said. “Cambridge Analytica specialized in disinformation, spreading rumors, kompromat, and propaganda.”
While Cambridge Analytica received much of the focus at Wednesday’s hearing, Facebook spent some time in the spotlight as well. Senator Kamala Harris of California condemned the creepy nature of digital tracking tools that never turn off. “In the real world this would be like someone following you every single day as you walk down the street, watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and who you’re with,” Harris said. “For most people, it would feel like an invasion of privacy and they would call the cops.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar asked if Wylie knew whether the data Cambridge Analytica amassed was concentrated in any particular states. Wylie speculated that Cambridge Analytica was focused on swing states. In reality, Facebook has already disclosed this data—though not with any fanfare—showing that the number of users whose data Cambridge Analytica took in each state is roughly proportionate to their populations.
Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, pressed Wylie on whether Cambridge Analytica’s tactics—collecting data on voters, profiling them, and running ads with hopes of persuading them—differed from President Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, or the Clinton campaign in 2016. “The Trump campaign was hardly the first to employ data in a very significant way in a political campaign,” senator Ted Cruz said, making no mention that his campaign had worked with Cambridge Analytica.
Senator Thom Tillis acknowledged that his campaign had also worked with Cambridge Analytica, but said he hoped the hearing would move beyond partisanship and toward “actually trying to figure out what if anything Congress should do from a regulatory framework and compliance framework.”
Wylie’s testimony rounds out a series of hearings in both the United States and the United Kingdom in recent months that have tried to piece together the role Cambridge Analytica and its British counterpart, SCL Group, have played in elections around the world. That line of inquiry hinges largely on the account Wylie gave to The New York Times and The Guardian in March about his time working for the company.
At the time, he explained how Cambridge Analytica had amassed data on what he believed were 50 million Facebook users via a third-party personality profiling app. (Facebook has since said Cambridge Analytica may have accessed as many as 87 million users’ data). From there, Wylie said, the company built psychological profiles on the American electorate, which it translated to so-called “psychographic” ad targeting.
Wylie’s revelation kicked off months of controversy about the lax Facebook data policies that allowed Cambridge Analytica to get its hands on this data in the first place. But the story also drew Cambridge Analytica, already something of a pariah in American political circles, out of the shadows. Democrats charged the company with mastery of the dark arts. Conservatives who had worked with Cambridge Analytica accused it of over-promising and under-delivering on its supposedly unique targeting techniques. Former Trump officials downplayed the company’s role in the campaign.
‘I’m skeptical of this data and these ads moving people in a substantial way.’
Eitan Hersh, Tufts University
Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica’s leaders were roundly criticized for being unscrupulous. During the 2016 campaign, the company’s former CEO Alexander Nix reached out to a representative for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to discuss ways the two companies could collaborate on organizing and disseminating the emails that had been stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Then, just weeks after Wylie’s stories went live, Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom aired a series of scathing undercover videos in which Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix appeared to brag to potential clients about using tactics like bribery and entrapment on behalf of international clients.
The dominoes fell from there. Nix was removed as CEO. The UK’s Information Commissioner stormed the company’s London-based offices, seizing its servers to prevent evidence tampering. Britain’s National Crime Agency opened an investigation, and now, it seems, so has the FBI.
It’s little wonder that earlier this month the company announced that SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica would be shutting down. Employees in Cambridge Analytica’s New York City-based office, which only opened in the fall of 2016, were told to pack their things and leave immediately.
Wylie was joined in the hearing by Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Tufts University and author of the book Hacking the Electorate, as well as Mark Jamison, a visiting scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Both academics expressed skepticism that Cambridge Analytica really had the power to change voters’ minds, even with all of that Facebook data.
“There hasn’t been any evidence presented from Facebook or Cambridge Analytica data…that could answer this question,” Hersh told the committee. “Based on what we’ve seen from public reports and the history of targeting…I’m skeptical of this data and these ads moving people in a substantial way.”
As in previous hearings regarding the perils of the digital age, lawmakers were short on answers. That’s largely because easy ones may not exist. Though Wylie had the floor for the majority of the hearing, it was Hersh who most succinctly summarized the problem facing tech companies, political groups, and the public. No amount of data, he argued, can persuade people who aren’t ready to be persuaded.
“We have a basic human response that we are attracted to provocation and extremism. What the platforms are doing online at the basic level is just encouraging that behavior,” Hersh said. It’s not clear whether Congress or the companies themselves should be in charge of curbing those behaviors. Or whether anyone should.