“I Was Just Flabbergasted.” Discovering Cambridge Analytica.

March 21, 2018

One evening during the 2016 presidential primaries, Sam Woolley wandered into a small meet-up on digital political messaging in the basement of a New York City tech store. At the gathering, he says, a group of experts boasted of an uncanny ability to influence voters on social media. The name of their company was Cambridge Analytica.

For Woolley, a leading researcher on online political manipulation, the meeting was a revelation. The Cambridge Analytica employees “opened up their playbook,” he recalled in an interview with FRONTLINE earlier this month. “I was just flabbergasted.”

“They were a firm that at the time no one really knew about but that later went on to work for Trump,” Woolley said. “[They] claimed that they could use psychographic marketing, so manipulation of people’s psyche with individual targeting to massively affect how people thought, felt and reacted to the election.”

At the meet-up, Woolley says a Cambridge Analytica employee said that the firm’s parent company “worked for politicians and regimes around the world, including multiple authoritarian regimes, in an attempt to spread information or a lack thereof around these pivotal events.”

Cambridge Analytica has been accused of furtively collecting personal data from millions of Facebook users to create voter profiles before the 2016 elections. The firm was working for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) when Woolley was introduced to the group, but it was later hired by the Trump campaign. Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was a former Cambridge Analytica executive.

Cambridge Analytica has denied using Facebook data in the election and has defended its business practices. The firm’s website says that the company provides candidates “with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences and data-driven ad tech.”

Woolley was interviewed by FRONTLINE as part of an ongoing investigation into the influence of social media platforms. He is a co-founder and former research director of the Computational Propaganda research team at the University of Oxford and the University of Washington. He is currently a research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California.

Anya Bourg

Anya Bourg, Producer, FRONTLINE

James Jacoby

James Jacoby, FRONTLINE

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

At George Floyd's Treatment Center, Recovering Clients See Racism in Addiction Assumptions
"Do you know how many times that could have been me?" Staff at a Minneapolis rehab facility that George Floyd attended see themselves in Floyd — and racism in theories about his drug use — the Star Tribune, our local journalism partner in Minneapolis, reports.
April 11, 2021
'Defending Our Existence': The Sung Family, From 2017 Film 'Abacus,' Talks About Anti-Asian Attacks, COVID
Thomas Sung and three of his daughters, all of whom were featured in the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," spoke about how their community has weathered the pandemic and anti-Asian attacks in New York City.
April 9, 2021
Repatriating ISIS Foreign Fighters Is Key to Stemming Radicalization, Experts Say, but Many Countries Don’t Want Their Citizens Back
A review of the 10 countries that yielded the most ISIS foreign fighters showed varying levels of commitment to repatriation and prosecution.
April 6, 2021
Chauvin Trial Again Casts Spotlight on Minneapolis Police Department's Training Program
Over 19 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, Derek Chauvin, the now-fired officer on trial in the death of George Floyd, racked up 17 misconduct complaints and was involved in four on-duty shootings or other fatal encounters. Despite that, Chauvin continued to serve as a field training officer.
April 3, 2021