Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself

Psychometrics and the (counter)revolution in marketing that is helping bring fascism to power around the world

Rejoice! It’s been a year, perhaps no one will notice.

From our original AntiNote on 22 January 2017:

“On the occasion of this article’s authorized wider release in English, should that come to pass, we will consider removing this post if we are asked nicely.”

We are honorable pirates. Out of respect for the reporters and researchers who worked so hard to bring this vital information to you (and who may yet face unpleasant consequences for having done so), we have removed our translation of their article even though VICE didn’t exactly ask nicely (they called our work “rough”). Sniff.

Glad to have had you stop through our little hideout. Hope to see you again.

Love and Rage,
Antidote Writers Collective
28 January 2017

Now, on 22 January 2018, we’re putting our version back up. Not to be jerks, or embarrass anyone, or invite controversy. We just don’t see the harm in it. We’re still honorable, we swear. See, we’re still including the link to VICE‘s version.

Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself
Psychometrics and the (counter)revolution in marketing that is helping bring fascism to power around the world

AntiNote: The following is an unauthorized translation of a December 2016 article that caused quite a stir in the German-language press. Das Magazin (Zurich) occupies a respected position within the German-language cultural and literary media landscape, functionally similar to (though perhaps not quite as prominent as) The New Yorker, and this work by investigative reporters Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus got a lot of attention—and generated some controversy, for apparently having scooped the English-language media with sensational observations about 2016’s most sensational story, the campaign and electoral victory of a fascist dictator in the United States.

Perhaps for this reason, the article has not appeared in translation in (or even had its investigative threads taken up by) English-language media outlets, even after nearly two months. Antidote presents, therefore, our own preemptive translation to fill this gap. We trust the skill of the reporters who wrote it and the veracity of their claims (which are verifiable by anyone with a search engine—we have embedded links where appropriate), and we question why this particular synthesis of public information is not being made available to non-German-speaking readers by outlets with more reach and respectability than us dirty DIY dicks.

On the occasion of this article’s authorized wider release in English, should that come to pass, we will consider removing this post if we are asked nicely. Until then: Enjoy!

[26 January 2017: There seems to have been a revised English version by Das Magazin circulating privately, which the Antidote Writers Collective was able to obtain. It corrects some minor flaws in the original German version, which we have now corrected here as well, along with replacing some short passages with their more precise wording. We have also added a few further links to supporting documentation. The basic thrust and thesis of the article remain unaltered.]

I just showed that the bomb was there.”
By Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus for Das Magazin (Zurich)
3 December 2016 (original post)

Psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a method of analyzing people’s behavior down to the minutest detail by looking at their Facebook activity—did a similar tool help propel Donald Trump to victory?

On November 9th, around 8:30 in the morning, Michal Kosinski awoke in his hotel room in Zurich. The 34-year-old had traveled here to give a presentation to the Risk Center at the ETH [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule or Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich] at a conference on the dangers of Big Data and the so-called digital revolution. Kosinski gives such presentations all over the world. He is a leading expert on psychometrics, a data-driven offshoot of psychology. Turning on the television that morning in Zurich, he saw that the bomb had gone off: defying the predictions of nearly every leading statistician, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States of America.

Kosinski watched Trump’s victory celebration and the remaining election returns for a long while. He suspected that his research could have had something to do with the result. Then he took a deep breath and turned off the television.

On the same day, a little-known British company headquartered in London issued a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in president-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix is quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in a tailored suit and designer eyeglasses, his slightly wavy blond hair combed back.

The meditative Kosinski, the well-groomed Nix, the widely grinning Trump—one made this digital upheaval possible, one carried it out, and one rode it to power.

How dangerous is Big Data?

Anyone who didn’t spend the last five years on the moon has heard the term Big Data. The emergence of Big Data has meant that everything we do, online or off-, leaves digital traces. Every purchase with a card, every Google search, every movement with a cellphone in your pocket, every “like” gets stored. Especially every “like.” For a while it wasn’t entirely clear what any of this data would be good for, other than showing us ads for blood pressure medication after we google “high blood pressure.” It also wasn’t entirely clear whether or in what ways Big Data would be a threat or a boon to humanity.

Since November 9th, 2016, we know the answer. Because one and the same company was behind both Trump’s online ad campaigns and mid-2016’s other shocker, the Brexit “Leave” campaign: Cambridge Analytica, with its CEO Alexander Nix. Anyone who wants to understand the outcome of the US elections—and what could be coming up in Europe in the near future—must begin with a remarkable incident at the University of Cambridge in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.

Psychometrics, sometimes also known as psychography, is a scientific attempt to “measure” the personality of a person. The so-called Ocean Method has become the standard approach. Two teams of psychologists were able to demonstrate in the 1980s that the character profile of a person can be measured and expressed in five dimensions, the Big Five: Openness (how open are you to new experiences?), Conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), Extroversion (how sociable are you?), Agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?), and Neuroticism (how sensitive/vulnerable are you?). With these five dimensions (O.C.E.A.N.), you can determine fairly precisely what kind of person you are dealing with—their needs and fears as well as how they are likely to behave. For a long time, however, the problem was data collection, because to produce such a character profile meant asking subjects to fill out a complicated survey asking quite personal questions. Then came the internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008: he was accepted to the prestigious University of Cambridge in England to do doctoral work at the Psychometrics Center, one of the oldest institutions of its kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application, in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. With MyPersonality, a user could fill out psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of questions from the Ocean survey (“I panic easily” – “I contradict others”), and receive a rating, or a “Personality Profile” consisting of individual Big Five values—and, when prompted, opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers. Instead of a couple dozen college friends participating, as Kosinski had expected, first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people had bared their souls. Suddenly the two doctoral students had access to the then-largest psychological data set ever produced.

The process that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the years that followed is actually quite simple. First surveys are distributed to test subjects—this is the online quiz. From the subjects’ responses, their personal Big Five scores are calculated. Then Kosinski’s team would compare these results to all sorts of other online data about test subjects—what they’ve liked, shared, or posted on Facebook; gender, age, and location. Thus the researchers began to find correlations, and began to see that amazingly reliable deductions could be made about a person by observing their online behavior. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were more likely to be gay. One of the best indicators of heterosexuality was liking Wu-Tang Clan. People who followed Lady Gaga, furthermore, tended to be extroverts. Someone who likes philosophy is more likely introverted. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team continued, tirelessly refining their models. In 2012, Kosinski demonstrated that from a mere 68 Facebook likes on average, a lot about a user could be reliably predicted: skin color (95% accuracy), sexual orientation (88% accuracy), Democrat or Republican (85%). But there’s more: level of intellect; religious affiliation; alcohol-, cigarette-, and drug abuse could all be calculated. Even whether or not your parents were divorced could be teased out of the data.

The strength of the model depended on how well it could predict a test subject’s answers. Kosinski kept working at it. Soon, with a mere ten “likes” as input his model could appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could “know” a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski’s model could predict a subject’s answers better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves.

The day he published these findings, Kosinski received two phonecalls. One was a threat to sue, the other a job offer. Both were from Facebook.

Only Visible to Friends

Just weeks later, Facebook likes became private by default (until then, the default setting had been that anyone on the internet could see your likes). This is still no obstacle for data-collectors: while Kosinski always requests the consent of the Facebook users he tests, many apps and online quizzes demand access to private information as a precondition to taking a personality test. (Anyone who is not overly concerned about their private information and wants to get assessed according to their Facebook likes can do so at Kosinski’s website, and then compare the results to those of a “classic” Ocean survey here.)

But it’s not just about likes. Kosinski and his team figured out how to ascribe Big Five values based only on how many profile pictures or how many social media contacts a person has (this is a good indicator of extroversion). And it’s not even just about Facebook. We also betray information about ourselves when we are offline. Motion sensors in a smartphone can show, for example, how fast we move it and how far we are traveling (correlates with emotional instability). A smartphone, Kosinski found, is in itself a powerful psychological survey that we, consciously or unconsciously, are constantly filling out.

Above all, though—and this is important to understand—it also works another way: using all this data, psychological profiles can not only be constructed, but they can also be sought and found. For example if you’re looking for worried fathers, or angry introverts, or undecided Democrats. What Kosinski had invented was essentially a search engine for people. He has been getting more and more acutely aware of both the potential and the danger his work presents.

The internet always seemed to him a gift from heaven. What he really wanted was to give something back, to share. Data can be copied, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It was the spirit of an entire generation, the beginning of a new era free of the limits of the physical world. But what could happen, Kosinski asked himself, if someone misused his search engine in order to manipulate people? He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work [e.g.]: these prediction techniques, he warned, could be used in ways that “pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” But no one seemed to understand what he meant.

Around this time, in early 2014, a young assistant professor named Aleksandr Kogan approached Kosinski. He said he had received an inquiry from a company interested in Kosinski’s methods. They apparently wanted to access the MyPersonality database, Kosinski remembers. To what purpose, Kogan couldn’t say: there were strict secrecy stipulations. At first, Kosinski and his team considered the offer—it would have meant a lot of money for his institute. But he hesitated. Finally, Kosinski remembers, Kogan divulged the name of the company: SCL, Strategic Communications Laboratories. Kosinski googled them [so did Antidote. Here. —ed.]: “[We are] a global election management agency,” said the company website [really, the website has even creepier language on it than that. “Behavioral change communication”? Go look already. —ed.]. SCL offers marketing based on a “psychographic targeting” model. With an emphasis on “election management” and political campaigns? Disturbed, Kosinski clicked through the pages. What kind of company is this? And what do they have planned for the United States?

What Kosinski didn’t know at the time: SCL is the public front of a complex group of companies whose byzantine corporate structures make it unclear who owns it and its diverse branches—as can be seen in the UK Companies House, the Panama Papers, and the Delaware company registry. Some SCL offshoots have been involved in overthrowing governments in developing countries; others have done work developing methods for psychologically manipulating the population in Afghanistan for NATO. SCL is also the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, this ominous Big Data outfit that later managed online marketing for both Trump and the Brexit “Leave” campaign.

Kosinski didn’t know any of that, but he had a bad feeling: “The whole thing started to stink,” he recalls. Looking into it further, he discovered that Aleksandr Kogan had secretly registered a company doing business with SCL. Documents obtained by Das Magazin confirm that SCL learned about Kosinski’s methods through Kogan, as was also revealed by the Guardian in December 2015. It suddenly dawned on Kosinski that Kogan could have reconstructed (or copied?) his Facebook likes-based Big Five measurement tool in order to sell it to this election-manipulating company. He immediately broke off contact with him and informed the head of the institute. A complicated battle ensued within Cambridge University. The institute feared for its reputation. Aleksandr Kogan moved to Singapore, got married, and began calling himself Dr. Spectre. Michal Kosinski finished his doctorate, got a job offer from Stanford University, and moved to the United States.

For a year or so it was quiet. Then, in November 2015, the more radical of the two Brexit campaigns (, supported by Nigel Farage) announced that they had contracted with a Big Data firm for online marketing support: Cambridge Analytica. The core expertise of this company: innovative political marketing, so-called microtargeting, by measuring people’s personality from their digital footprints based on the Ocean model.

Kosinski started getting emails asking if he had had anything to do with it—for many, his is the first name to spring to mind upon hearing the terms Cambridge, Ocean, and analytics in the same breath. This is when he heard of Cambridge Analytica for the first time. Appalled, he looked up their website. Were his methods being deployed, on a massive scale, for political purposes?

After the Brexit vote in July the email inquiries turned to insults and reproaches. Just look what you’ve done, friends and colleagues wrote. Kosinski had to explain over and over again that he had nothing to do with this company.

First Brexit, Then Trump

September 19th, 2016: the US presidential election is approaching. Guitar riffs fill the dark blue ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York: CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising.” The Concordia Summit is like the WEF in miniature. Decision makers from all over the world are invited; among the guests is Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann.

A gentle women’s voice comes over the PA: “Please welcome Alexander Nix, Chief Executive Officer of Cambridge Analytica.” A lean man in a dark suit strides towards the center of the stage. A attentive quiet descends. Many in the room already know: this is Trump’s new Digital Man. “Soon you’ll be calling me Mr. Brexit,” Trump had tweeted cryptically a few weeks before. Political observers had already been pointing out the substantial similarities between Trump’s agenda and that of the rightwing Brexit camp; only a few had noticed the connection to Trump’s recent hiring of a largely unknown marketing company: Cambridge Analytica.

Before then, Trump’s online campaign had consisted more or less of one person: Brad Parscale, a marketing operative and failed startup founder who had built Trump a rudimentary website for $1,500. The 70-year-old Trump is not what one would call an IT-whiz; his desk is unencumbered by a computer. Trump doesn’t do email, his personal assistant once let slip. It was she who persuaded him to get a smartphone—the one from which he has uninhibitedly tweeted ever since.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was relying on the endowment of the first social media president, Barack Obama. She had the Democratic Party’s address lists, worked with cutting-edge Big Data analysts from BlueLabs, and received support from Google and Dreamworks. When it was announced in June 2016 that Trump had hired Cambridge Analytica, Washington collectively sneered. Foreign noodlenecks in tailored suits who don’t understand this country and its people? Seriously?

Ladies and gentlemen, honorable colleagues, it is my privilege to speak to you today about the power of Big Data and psychographics in the electoral process.” The Cambridge Analytica logo appears behind Alexander Nix—a brain, comprised of a few network nodes and pathways, like a subway map. “It’s easy to forget that only eighteen months ago Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates seeking nomination, and certainly one of the more vilified,” begins the blond man with his British diction that produces the same mixture of awe and resentment in Americans that high German does the Swiss. “In addition, he had very low name recognition; only about forty percent of the electorate had heard of him.”

Everyone in the room was aware of the sudden rise, in May 2016, of the conservative senator. It was one of the strangest moments of the primary campaign. Cruz had become the last serious challenger to frontrunner Trump in the Republican field of presidential candidates, rising from 5 to 35 percent. “How did he do this?” continues Nix.

Cambridge Analytica had begun engaging with US elections towards the end of 2014, initially to advise Ted Cruz, funded by the secretive American tech billionaire Robert Mercer. Up to that point, according to Nix, election campaign strategy had been guided by demographic concepts. “But this is a really ridiculous idea, the idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender; or all African-Americans because of their race.” The Hillary Clinton campaign team was still operating on precisely such amateurish assumptions—Nix need not even mention—which divide the electorate up into ostensibly homogeneous groups…exactly the same way as all the public opinion researchers who predicted a Clinton victory did.

Nix clicks to the next slide: five different faces, each representing a personality profile. It is the Ocean model. “At Cambridge, we’ve rolled out a long-form quantitative instrument to probe the underlying traits that inform personality. This is the cutting edge in experimental psychology.” It is now completely silent in the hall. “By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing arises from the combination of three elements: this psychological behavioral analysis of the Ocean model, Big Data evaluation, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertisement tailored as precisely as possible to the character of a single consumer.

Nix explains forthrightly how his company does this (the presentation can be viewed on YouTube). From a range of different sources, Cambridge Analytical buys up personal data: “What car you drive, what products you purchase in shops, what magazines you read, what clubs you belong to.” Land registry and church membership. On the screen behind him are displayed the logos of global data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the United States nearly all personal consumer data is available for purchase. If you want to know, for example, where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information. Including telephone numbers. Now Cambridge Analytica crosschecks these data sets with Republican Party voter rolls and online data such as Facebook likes, and constructs an Ocean personality profile. From a selection of digital signatures there suddenly emerge real individual people with fears, needs, and interests—and home addresses.

The methodology looks quite similar to the models that Michal Kosinski once developed. Cambridge Analytica also uses surveys on social media in order to gain access to the powerful predictive personal information wrapped up in the Facebook likes of users. And Cambridge Analytica is doing precisely what Kosinski had warned about. “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Nix boasted in an interview with Das Magazin. And all the evidence suggests that they deployed this powerful data set politically.

Back in the ballroom of the Hyatt, Nix clicks to the next slide. “This is a data dashboard that we prepared for the Cruz campaign for the Iowa caucus. It looks intimidating, but it’s actually very simple.” On the left, graphs and diagrams; on the right, a map of Iowa, where Cruz had done surprisingly well in the caucuses. On this map, hundreds of thousands of tiny dots, red and blue. Nix begins to narrow down search criteria to a category of Republican caucus-goers he describes as a “persuasion” group, whose common Ocean personality profile and home locations are now visible, a smaller set of people to whom advertisement can be more effectively tailored. Ultimately the criteria can be narrowed to a single individual, along with his name, age, address, interests, and political leanings. How does Cambridge Analytica approach this person with political messaging?

Earlier in the presentation, using the example of the Second Amendment, Nix showed two variations on how certain psychographic profiles are spoken to differently. “For a highly Neurotic and Conscientious audience, you’re going to need a message that is both rational and fear-based: the threat of a burglary and the ‘insurance policy’ of a gun is very persuasive.” A picture on the left side of the screen shows a gloved hand breaking a window and reaching for the inside door handle. On the right side, there is a picture of a man and child silhouetted against a sunset in tall grass, both with rifles, obviously duck hunting: “for a Closed and Agreeable audience, people who care about traditions and habits and family and community, talking about these values is going to be much more effective in communicating your message.”

How to Keep Clinton Voters Away

Trump’s conspicuous contradictions and his oft-criticized habit of staking out multiple positions on a single issue result in a gigantic number of resulting messaging options that creates a huge advantage for a firm like Cambridge Analytica: for every voter, a different message. Mathematician Cathy O’Neil had already observed in August that “Trump is like a machine learning algorithm” that adjusts to public reactions. “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix explained to Das Magazin. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team blasted out 175,000 distinct test variations on his arguments, mostly via Facebook. The messages varied mostly in their microscopic details, in order to communicate optimally with their recipients: different titles, colors, subtitles, with different images or videos. The granularity of this message tailoring digs all the way down to tiny target groups, Nix told Das Magazin. “We can target specific towns or apartment buildings. Even individual people.”

In the Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti, Trump’s campaign regaled residents with messages about the failures of the Clinton Foundation after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, in order to dissuade them from turning out for Clinton. This was one of the goals: to get potential but wavering Clinton voters—skeptical leftists, African-Americans, young women—to stay home. To “suppress” their votes, as one Trump campaign staffer bluntly put it. In these so-called dark posts (paid Facebook ads which appear in the timelines only of users with a particular suitable personality profile), African-Americans, for example, were shown the nineties-era video of Hillary Clinton referring to black youth as “super predators.”

Nix begins to wrap up his presentation at the Concordia Summit: “Blanket advertising—the idea that a hundred million people will receive the same piece of direct mail, the same television advert, the same digital advert—is dead. My children will certainly never understand this concept of mass communication. Today, communication is becoming ever increasingly targeted.

The Cruz campaign is over now, but what I can tell you is that of the two candidates left in this election, one of them is using these technologies. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how they impact the next seven weeks. Thank you.” With that, he exits the stage.

It is not knowable just to what extent the American population is being targeted by Trump’s digital troopers—because they seldom attack through the mainstream broadcast media, but rather mostly with highly personalized ads on social media or through digital cable. And while the Clinton team sat back in the confidence that it was safe with its demographic calculations, a new crew was moving into the Trump online campaign headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, as Bloomberg journalist Sasha Issenberg noted with surprise after a visit. The Cambridge Analytica team, apparently just a dozen people, had received around $100,000 from Trump in July; in August another $250,000; five million in September. Altogether, says Nix, they took in around fifteen million.

And the company took even more radical measures: starting in July 2016, a new app was prepared for Trump campaign canvassers with which they could find out the political orientation and personality profile of a particular house’s residents in advance. If the Trump people ring a doorbell, it’s only the doorbell of someone the app has identified as receptive to his messages, and the canvassers can base their line of attack on personality-specific conversation guides also provided by the app. Then they enter a subject’s reactions to certain messaging back into the app, from where this new data flows back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.

This is nothing new. The Clinton campaign did similar things—but as far as we know they did not use psychometric profiling. Cambridge Analytica, however, divided the US population into 32 personality types, and concentrated on only seventeen states. And just as Kosinski had determined that men who like MAC cosmetics on Facebook are more likely to be gay, Cambridge Analytica found that a preference for American-produced cars is a great indicator of a possible Trump voter. Among other things, this kind of knowledge could inform Trump himself which messages to use, and where. The decision to focus candidate visits in Michigan and Wisconsin over the final weeks of the campaign was based on this manner of data analysis. The candidate himself became an implementation instrument of the model.

What is Cambridge Analytica Doing in Europe?

But to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? Cambridge Analytica, when asked, did not want to disclose any documentation assessing the effectiveness of their campaign. It is possible that the question of how important psychometric targeting was in the 2016 election cannot be answered at all. Still, some indicators should be considered: there is the fact that Ted Cruz, thanks to the help of Cambridge Analytica, rose out of obscurity to become Trump’s strongest competitor in the primaries; there is the increase in rural voter turnout; there is the reduction, compared to 2008 and 2012, in African-American voter participation. The fact that Trump spent so little money may also be explained by the effectiveness of personality-based advertising. As does the fact that he invested far more in digital than TV campaigning compared to Hillary Clinton. Facebook proved to be his ultimate weapon and his best election campaigner, as the tweeting of several Trump staffers describes it. In Germany, the rightwing upstart party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) may like the sound of this, as they have more Facebook friends than Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) combined.

It is therefore not at all the case, as is so often claimed, that statisticians lost this election because their polls were so faulty. The opposite is true: statisticians won this election. It was just certain statisticians, the ones using the new method. It is a cruel irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used such a highly scientific approach in his campaign.

Another big winner in the election was Cambridge Analytica. Steve Bannon, a Cambridge Analytica board member and former executive chair of the ultra-rightwing online site Breitbart News, was named Trump’s chief strategist. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, ambitious Front National activist and niece of the presidential candidate, has tweeted that she would accept his invitation to collaborate. In an internal company video, there is a recording of a discussion entitled “Italy.” While Cambridge Analytica is not willing to comment on alleged ongoing talks with UK prime minister Theresa May, Alexander Nix claims that he is in the process of client acquisition, worldwide, and that he has received inquiries out of Switzerland and Germany.

Kosinski has been observing all of this from his office at Stanford. After the election, the university has been in turmoil. Kosinski is responding to the developments with the most powerful weapon available to a researcher: scientific analysis. Along with his research colleague Sandra Matz, he conducted a series of tests that will soon be published. The initial results seen by Das Magazin are unsettling: The study shows the effectiveness of personality targeting by showing that marketers can attract up to 63% more clicks and up to 1400% more conversions in real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook when matching products and marketing messages to consumers’ personality characteristics. They further demonstrate the scalability of personality targeting by showing that the majority of Facebook Pages promoting products or brands are affected by personality and that large numbers of consumers can be accurately targeted based on a single Facebook Page.

The world has been turned upside down. The Brits are leaving the EU; Trump rules America. And in Stanford the Polish researcher Michal Kosinski, who indeed tried to warn of the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is still getting accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski quietly, shaking his head, “this is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I just showed that it was there.”

Translated by Antidote, with minor adjustments based on a Das Magazin internal draft [26 January 2017]

Featured image: cartoon by Christiane Pfohlmann; text is untranslatable wordplay in which Trump is saying “I can’t do anything about it” and “I have Nix to thank.” Source:

Paul-Olivier Dehaye contributed to the preparation of the original article, which also included a link to his website where you can request your data from Cambridge Analytica: PersonalData.IO

32 thoughts on “Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself”

  1. Reblogged this on Ali's Journal and commented:
    this tells us that all our fears had come true even back in 2012 ! .. today they are collecting and using the activity of “every” person online doing anything and everything and using it to predict or mold or re-route and ultimate ‘control’ his life !

  2. Reblogged this on marmalade season and commented:
    Revolting. Trump voters, you were duped. Consider this thought, contained within the article: “Trump’s conspicuous contradictions and his oft-criticized habit of staking out multiple positions on a single issue result in a gigantic number of resulting messaging options…” Know what that means? He says whatever you’ll respond to. Warn France. Warn Germany. And for goodness’ sake, stop giving these jerks so much information about yourself.

    1. It’s too late – they already have your information.
      The only way to respond is do what they did. Targeted ads. Dynamic messaging. Fight fire with fire.

      1. If by “your information,” you mean me, personally, I’m not so sure. I don’t have a personal Facebook page, don’t have a smartphone, rarely use cards.
        If by “your information,” you are using me to represent the average reader, then sure. I wouldn’t consider myself average in this way, but it’s true that most people have already given up the information.
        I’m not a fight fire with fire person, really, so doubt I’d find myself taking that view, for better or for worse. I expect going on, though, political candidates will do as you have said.

      2. Although, of course, I’ve done the work for them simply by having a blog. Not sure they’d have noticed that, though, ha ha. There’s a joke about being a failure as a blogger in there somewhere…

    2. And, currently, there is little way to know if we’re being duped too. How much of the barrage of negative coverage of his actions are attributable to this methodology? How much of the way reports are framed and specifically targeted are due to this? Do we know the details of every EO he’s signed so far? Do we know the details of his plans, or are we informed by the articles that we see in our social media and other feed-style outlets? We’re afraid of him, just like Trump supporters were afraid of Hillary. So we’re susceptible, and we need to keep that in mind. Emotionally driven political instability is a powerful strategy for control.

      1. I have a couple thoughts about this:

        We are not afraid of him “just like Trump supporters were afraid of Hillary,” and here is why: neither of these people exist only in the present. We have their personal histories to consider. It’s not like no one ever looked into Hillary’s alleged wrongdoings. They did, vigorously and at length. She was cleared. There was a percentage of the populace that was unable to cope with that fact, and those people kept perpetuating the stories as if they were current scandal. They were not.

        That is very, very different from the situation we have with Trump. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that we don’t have enough facts about Trump’s EOs or plans. Let’s say that we only have some facts. Considering his history, why are those facts not enough? He has a lifetime history of being just the kind of person who would sign EOs just like the ones he is now signing. How many more details do we need? How many data points are we supposed to wait for before we put our collective foot down? And how in the world have there not been enough already?

        Even though you didn’t use these words, what I’m hearing from your comment is (1) the media may be misrepresenting him and (2) give him a chance. I hear “give him a chance” because if we wait for more and more data points, that is, by necessity, giving him a chance.

        As for (1), he is not only represented by the media, he is represented by himself, continuously and at every opportunity, on Twitter and on the television. This is Trump. He has told us who he is. As for (2), no thanks.

        We don’t need to have “emotionally driven political instability.” Feeling an emotion does not mean the same thing as being emotionally driven. Feeling an emotion (or even two) about a situation that is terrible does not mean the choice to end that situation is emotionally driven. And, why assume the removal of an unfit president would create instability? I would argue leaving an unfit president in office creates instability. We have procedures in place if we have a president who is unable to do the job so that it’s not a free-for-all when something like this happens. Let’s use them.

      2. Here’s the dilemma: It’s impossible way to generate multiple contradictory actions to fit to the multiple contradictory promises. No, you can’t all have the biggest piece of cake, because now we’re dealing with Reality, not Wishful Thinking. And this is how cakes get utterly destroyed.
        Where is Cambridge Analytics, now that they have done their job and been paid? As always, “Follow the money.” Seems clear to me: No one is paying to have targeted positive/negative messages about how the pres. tRump is performing, therefore Reality has a chance to assert itself, at least for now. Kellyanne Conway, as skillful a duck as she is (reality rolls off her back like water off a duck), is not as powerful without all the backup, targeted, subliminal messaging going on.
        We are stuck with a tone-deaf egomaniac who listens only to syncophants, who do not even know the most basic things, like how a president should behave with our own CIA or with foreign leaders.

      3. The media is not using this methodology. They would be much more persuasive if they were. For a lawyer, which I am, the executive orders are simple to understand. Especially the immigration one, since I’m an immigration lawyer. They are all that we fear and more. For a layperson, they are slightly more difficult, but understanding them is certainly possible if one makes the effort. If you don’t trust an article in a relatively respected publication, take the time to go to its sources, and if necessary, the sources of its sources. Check other articles on the same issues in publications with different viewpoints. I’ve done this over and over again and I have a feeling for the specific biases of each publication and where it might be, in order of most concerning to least: outright lying vs irresponsibly presenting unknowns vs leaving out details that don’t fit within their narrative vs choosing a position that they don’t have to take for a nebulous purpose vs only choosing to cover particular things to the omission of other things (hint: every publication does this last thing and it can certainly result in suppressing an important story like this one).

  3. Reblogged this on alexpavlotski and commented:
    Wow. Micro-marketing is probably where all researchers like myself are likely to go in the future. Who could have thought, our social network is the key to selling out our deepest secrets, and our confirmation bias means that we’ll buy an untrue story… if it’s pitched at exactly the right level.

  4. Don’t you guys think that this is a natural (virtually unstoppable, only delayable) direction of evolution? It is impossible to cover your tracks in real life, also in virtual and arguably shouldn’t even be desirable by definition. Market saturation up ahead. How will the game change when everyone is using?

  5. Isn’t this just mega-marketing and its natural consequence. If Americans were still supporting corner stores and small local businesses-in person-we would be encouraged toward individual thought. We would bounce ideas back and forth. With mega-marketing, individual thought and community banter are eliminated. The mega marketer is the only voice.

  6. I have been writing about Cambridge Analytica for over a year. They are one terrifying outfit.

  7. Reblogged this on Transports of Delight (and other things) and commented:
    I always knew that social media and the simple use of store cards could be problematic in some way, but mainly personally, or with a bit of targeted marketing for new products or services.

    This article however, blows that right out of the water. We are indeed being monitored, tracked and targeted by organisations, particularly political ones, to get what they want. Trump, Brexit and others to follow – they will all use this and politics will be simply about who clicks ‘like’ on Facebook and what they post. Not much really about actual issues that need fixing, just who ever has the deepest pockets and wants ‘the power’.

    Ordinary people don’t really have any response to this, other than to stop using social media and store cards and smart phones all together! Thats a big step!

    Watch out of Cambridge Analytica – and not in a good way.

  8. Very enlightening article, many thanks for the translation to English. I am in the process of attempting a French translation of this article, will start on monday, any help greatly appreciated. Reply here if you want to get involved.

  9. So, get everyone you know to fill in as many surveys as possible with erroneous information, like things they don’t and generally screw the data-collection process. Get that message out and the whole edifice will crumble.

    1. <3 <3 <3
      This made our day, thank you.
      Taking our version out of public circulation reduces the chance that the report's detractors (Cambridge Analytica themselves among them) can use small alleged inconsistencies to attack its authors.
      That said, message us on our Facebook page if you'd like a private copy. Thank you for your kind words. Long live insurgent media!

      1. While the facts seems pretty much the same after skimming theirs, and I’m not really sure what the clickbaitiness would consist of, I must say yours was richer, more nuanced. It felt much better to read, activated more thought and was thereby more memorable.
        Although I personally have no use for it, I want to point out that recommending people to use Facebook to request it seems very hypocritical.

  10. When I read your story on 1/22, I made a PDF of it thinking it would probably disappear at some point. Now I’m reading your translation side by side with the Vice translation. Yours is better, much better.

    Why change “he saw that the bomb had gone off: defying the predictions of nearly every leading statistician” to “he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians”? Your translation has so much more punch! Who says “the bombshell had exploded”? No one says that. They say “he dropped a bombshell.” Yours is a more powerful metaphor, likening a sophisticated system of innovative political marketing to a bomb, not a bombshell. Just a dumb change.

    Or: “The meditative Kosinski, the well‐groomed Nix, the widely grinning Trump—one made this digital upheaval possible, one carried it out, and one rode it to power.” They changed this to: “Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.” Wow. Such boring word choice. One of them benefited from it. Seriously, why didn’t Vice just pay you for your translation?! Oh, well, maybe they could pay their own writers less, yes, that seems obvious.

    And this: “It is therefore not at all the case, as is so often claimed, that statisticians lost this election because their polls were so faulty. The opposite is true: statisticians won this election. It was just certain statisticians, the ones using the new method. It is a cruel irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used such a highly scientific approach in his campaign.” This became: “Many voices have claimed that the statisticians lost the election because their predictions were so off the mark. But what if statisticians in fact helped win the election—but only those who were using the new method? It is an irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used a highly scientific approach in his campaign.” What if? What if? Your version is so much more decisive on the matter. “The opposite is true,” not, “What if.” And it’s not just “an irony of history,” it’s “a cruel irony of history!” Vice botched it all up. You guys are awesome. Your version was so much better. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read yours first.

  11. Thank you for posting the “rough” translation. I believe it is very important to get this information out and well known. Your translation may be the reason that Vice even noticed the German article.

  12. thewholebenchilada

    I commend your honorable piracy….. but just FYI, from a language nerd’s standpoint completely divorced from politics… your translation was better. “I just showed that the bomb was there” has a WAY sweeter ring to it than “I only showed that it exists.” Your title was stuck in my head giving me shivers as I mused on this days later. Plus, “the same reaction Hochdeutsch elicits in some Swiss” –> your “the same mix of resentment and awe” was spot on; the Vice translation says Nix’s accent “puts Americans on edge just like Hochdeutsch does the Swiss”….. WTF? hahaha.

    Come on Vice, play nicely – just say politely that it’s your property and it’s not appropriate for someone else to post it. No need for catty extra twists of the dagger like “and your translation is rough!” Because it wasn’t. It was better.

  13. Pingback: The Facebook data breach wasn’t a hack. It was a wake-up | Cyber Trend Reports

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top