Long before Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy, conservative strategist Steve Bannon sought to leverage data-driven technology to push the hearts and minds of voters toward his populist vision for America.
Former Cambridge Analytica staffers tell CNN that Bannon’s vision came to fruition through their previous employer, which they described as a weapon of psychological warfare. They say that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company had worked on government and military contracts that aimed to change foreign populations’ behaviors, which aligned with Bannon’s intentions.
Two former employees said that Bannon was personally involved in the company’s early stages and that he played a direct role shaping its strategy and goals.
“This was Steve Bannon’s baby,” said former contractor Christopher Wylie, who described Cambridge Analytica as “Bannon’s arsenal of weaponry to wage a culture war on America using military strategies.”
Bannon wanted to use the sorts of aggressive messaging tactics usually reserved for geopolitical conflicts to move the US electorate further to the right, Wylie said. He had already directed a series of anti-establishment, conservative documentary films and presided over the far-right website Breitbart News, but Cambridge Analytica would mark another step in his overall ambitions to transform the nation.
With financial backing from hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Bannon co-founded Cambridge Analytica in 2013 as the US-branch of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group, a British company that advertises how it has conducted “behavioral change” programs in more than 60 countries.
Wylie described Cambridge Analytica as “Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer using a foreign, military contractor … to use some of the same techniques that the military uses … on the American electorate.”
Bannon and Cambridge Analytica did not respond to requests for comment to this story.
SCL Group has consulted numerous government agencies and organizations on psychological operations and strategic messaging since the 1990s. The company has offered clients “research and analysis that yields intervention strategies aimed at specific behaviors,” according to its website.
That work has included an examination of ways to reduce recruitment into violent jihadist groups in Pakistan in 2009, a communication program aimed at decreasing the number of improvised explosive devices built in Iraq, as well as political consulting throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, according to SCL documents.
SCL was commissioned to train a psychological operations group that supported the British military, according to a 2012 letter by the group’s then-commanding officer.
The US State Department also contracted SCL in 2017 to conduct “target audience research” in order to better understand ISIS radicalization and recruitment. A State Department official told CNN the research included about 100 interviews in Europe and the Middle East.
“SCL’s sales pitch essentially was ‘Look, we go into foreign countries. We use our tools, our psychographic profiling, to manipulate public opinion.’ Ultimately that’s what Bannon wanted to do in the United States,” said CNN political analyst Joshua Green, whose book ‘Devil’s Bargain’ chronicles Bannon’s role in Trump’s election.
Cambridge Analytica has come under fire this month for its alleged use of personal data from tens of millions of Facebook users obtained through the company Global Science Research (GSR) without Facebook’s permission. The New York Times and The Observer of London first broke the story.
Bannon, a former White House chief strategist and Trump campaign CEO, told CNN last week that he doesn’t remember purchasing personal information from Facebook while working for the company.
He has said that Democrats have been leveraging social media data for campaign messaging for years but have received little scrutiny. He also said that SCL is separate from Cambridge Analytica and that the company’s “psychographics,” referring to personality profiles used to try to predict people’s interest, values, and opinions, were not used during the Trump campaign.
“Cambridge Analytica is the data scientists and the applied applications here in the United States. It has nothing to do with the international stuff,” Bannon said at the Financial Times “Future of News” event last week.
But four former SCL and Cambridge Analytica employees said the two companies were basically one and the same, sharing resources, holding joint meetings and using similar methodologies.
“SCL and Cambridge were completely joined at the hip. There is no difference between the two,” said one former Cambridge Analytica employee who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity citing fear of retribution.
Wylie said that Bannon’s plans began to solidify in 2014, when Cambridge Analytica consulted various Republican campaigns and PACs ahead of the midterm elections. The company began to test and apply its psychographics by using Facebook data to model individuals’ personality types in order to understand how to influence them.
Documents show the John Bolton Super PAC, which promoted candidates supported by recently appointed White House national security adviser John Bolton, paid Cambridge Analytical $454,700 in 2014 for “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” Those services included strategies that broke individual voters into “clusters” based on what messages would resonate with them.
Wylie also said the company used focus groups and messaging trials in 2014 to test some of the concepts that became core themes of the Trump campaign, such as “drain the swamp” and imagery of walls.
“A lot of the narratives of the Trump campaign were what we were testing in 2014,” Wylie said.
He added that Bannon directly presided over much of the company’s initial research.
“Everything that we were doing ultimately had to be passed up to Bannon for approval,” said Wylie, who left the company in late 2014.
Wylie said Bannon would fly to London about once a month for company meetings, and during that time he came to understand Bannon’s ideology.
“He really liked the idea of using a military-style approach to changing people’s perceptions,” Wylie said.
Although Cambridge Analytica worked to sharpen its psychographic techniques ahead of the presidential election, former Trump campaign staffers have told CNN they did not buy into those methodologies when the company began consulting for the campaign in the summer of 2016.
Cambridge Analytica said in statement it did not use Facebook data obtained from GSR during the 2016 presidential election but rather relied on voter files from the Republican National Committee, campaign donor information and other consumer data for its operation.
At a post-election event hosted by Google in December 2016, Cambridge Analytica’s then-head of product Matt Oczkowski said the pace of the Trump campaign led his company to rely less on personality profiling and instead focus on traditional data services.
“We didn’t really use psychographics that much because we had to walk before we could run,” Oczkowski said.
Some political consultants and researchers say that despite the attraction of being able to sway voters through messaging based on personality data, the actual effectiveness of psychographics remains questionable.
“Cambridge Analytica’s approach is massively overhyped just because the word ‘psych’ is in it. There’s no compelling scientific evidence that the approach they’re taking is in any part effective,” said David Rand, a Yale professor of psychology and economics, who studies human behavior.
Whether or not Cambridge Analytica played a significant role in influencing voters or sealing Trump’s victory, Wylie says Bannon’s dream became a reality.
“He sees this as warfare, so he is going to use as aggressive of techniques as he can get away with,” Wylie said.