Breean Beggs remembers the call: a pollster asking questions about Spokane City Council races – including his own.
“They said, ‘This is Cambridge Analytica,’ ” Beggs said.
At the time, Cambridge Analytica was known primarily as a “data-driven campaign” firm that worked on the Trump campaign, the Brexit effort in England and other right-wing electoral efforts – a company that claimed to have discovered a new way of profiling and targeting every voter in the country.
In recent days, allegations that the company improperly mined Facebook profiles have come to the surface, raising a whole host of questions about the security of personal data online and the possible misuse of that data for political or business purposes.
A former Cambridge employee has provided evidence that the firm accessed 50 million Facebook profiles without users’ knowledge. Reports are emerging daily about its shadowy electoral practices – such as the employment of Ukrainian sex workers to get compromising information about candidates.
All of which makes the firm’s $50,000 effort targeting voters on social media in last fall’s Spokane City Council races even more interesting.
Better Spokane, a political committee funded by several prominent business owners in town, hired Cambridge Analytica’s campaign arm, CA Political, in the late weeks of last year’s elections, primarily in unsuccessful efforts to unseat council incumbents Beggs and Candace Mumm.
Michael Cathcart, executive director of Better Spokane, said his group hired CA Political for its data expertise and success in seemingly odds-defying campaigns such as Trump’s. He said that detailed, deep use of data is a hallmark of many modern campaigns, noting that President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Inslee both had extensive and sophisticated data projects.
“Data is pivotal,” he said. “What they did for us, as far as I know, was on the up and up.”
Still, Cathcart said, Better Spokane would dicontinue working with CA in the future.
Part of what CA Political did in Spokane was target ads toward voters on Facebook. For example, Better Spokane produced an ad criticizing Beggs for his work on an initiative that would have levied fines against uncovered coal shipments and untreated shipments of highly pressurized oil passing through Spokane.
I saw that ad on my Facebook feed just about daily in the weeks before the election, it seemed. I never once saw an ad criticizing Mumm, though they existed.
That’s because I live in Beggs’ district, and the ad was targeted toward me, Cathcart said.
“That’s why you wouldn’t have seen the Candace Mumm ad,” he said.
In and of itself, targeting voters using public information is not improper or unusual. I get mailers at home that are targeted to me, as well. But in the case of the 50 million Facebook profiles, the information was obtained in 2014 without the authorization of users and in violation of the site’s rules.
Facebook learned the firm had obtained the records from a researcher, and said Cambridge pledged to destroy the information but didn’t do so. Facebook has suspended the firm’s access to its site as a result. Questions about Facebook’s involvement and level of knowledge remain, however.
Cambridge denies wrongdoing, and says it never used the profile information in its political work.
In the final weeks of the 2017 City Council campaign, Better Spokane made three payments to CA Political for “digital services” – $10,000 on Oct. 16, $20,000 on Oct. 20 and $20,000 on Oct. 31, according to reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.
That was a significant part of Better Spokane’s overall reported campaign spending of more than $126,000.
“Both Breean and I started seeing Facebook ads popping up all over the place,” Mumm said. “I guess my question was, ‘Why Spokane?’ Why so much money spent with this New York firm that obviously has questionable business practices.”
Beggs said, “They spent so much money on advertising. People I knew were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s everywhere.’ ”
Cambridge Analytica has attracted attention and controversy on several fronts. It has close ties to the Brietbart “news” ecosystem. The firm’s primary owner is Robert Mercer, a hedge fund tycoon and prominent Trump donor, and Steve Bannon was vice president of its board until recently.
The company has sold itself as having revolutionary ability to find and persuade voters, claiming to have developed “psychographic” profiles of every American adult, including their political beliefs and strategies for persuading them. The firm’s president, Alexander Nix, has called this Cambridge Analytica’s “secret sauce.” Some political scientists have long said the claims are overstated.
“All we knew (at first) was that they were touting themselves as having a new approach to analytics – that they were targeting voters in a way no one else had,” Beggs said. “Now we know how: Facebook data.”
Cambridge Analytica has a mixed record in elections. It certainly didn’t turn the tide in Spokane, where Beggs and Mumm both won re-election.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder how much of the special sauce we were served here in Spokane.