A database built by Cambridge Analytica, the Republican-aligned firm that unraveled over allegations of improper use of Facebook data, disproportionately identified Black voters as ripe for “Deterrence” in profiles prepared for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to a report Monday from Britain’s Channel 4 News.
The president’s reelection campaign called the segment “fake news,” and an aide who handled data in 2016 said the material went unused by the campaign.
Still, the evidence the British broadcaster says it has uncovered is likely to intensify concerns about voter suppression and the opportunities afforded by Facebook to narrowly segment and target portions of the electorate.
The material revives debates over the extent to which the voter profiles touted by Cambridge Analytica were actually used to sway the vote in 2016. The firm was founded in part by The Trump campaign’s onetime chief executive, Steve Bannon, and collapsed in 2018 after news reports detailed its improper use of Facebook data in analyzing voters and other allegations of impropriety.
The new cache of materials could add detail to allegations about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the campaign, particularly in efforts to harness Facebook’s powerful ad technologies to dissuade Black voters from supporting Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. Four years later, turnout among similar communities may help decide the Nov. 3 contest.
The tactics described in the Channel 4 report are legal, and the sorting of voters into categories for the purposes of political messaging has been a routine – and all but unregulated – part of campaign tactics for years.
A database of nearly 200 million American voters, obtained by Channel 4, sorted likely Democratic voters into several categories, such as “Core Clinton” or “Disengaged Clinton.” The database put 3.5 million African Americans into a third category called “Deterrence,” in an apparent bid to single them out for messages designed to dissuade them from voting, the report said.
The file spanned 16 states, according to the news channel. In crucial battlegrounds, Black voters made up a disproportionate share of those marked for “Deterrence” – 17% in Wisconsin despite making up just 5.4% of voters, and 33% in Michigan while accounting for 15% of the voting population.
The margin in these states, which Trump won in 2016, was exceptionally narrow. Trump bested Clinton in Michigan by 11,000 votes. Meanwhile, Black turnout fell in Michigan and Wisconsin by more than 12 points, estimates suggest.
The database, in Channel 4’s telling, was “used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign” – an allegation the campaign denied.
“This machine was built in part by a team from the now-notorious company Cambridge Analytica, working hand in glove with a team from the Republican National Committee,” the segment further claimed. Channel 4 did not say how it had obtained the database.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign, dismissed the report as “fake news,” adding in a statement that Trump’s record gave him a “relationship of trust with African American voters.” The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, “has not seen the documents” described by the British broadcaster, said Paris Dennard, the party’s senior communications adviser for Black media affairs. He added, “that is not our data.”
Matt Braynard, who served as the Trump campaign’s data director in 2016, said his team did not use the categorizations featured in the report, relying instead on material from the party and from the firm L2 Political. He also said, “Deterrence doesn’t mean suppression and it doesn’t mean deterrence from voting. It just means deterrence from voting for Hillary Clinton.” James Barnes, a former Facebook employee embedded with Trump’s team, said he had “no exposure to a ‘deterrence’ segment in 2016.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million, according to Federal Election Commission data tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee featured in the Channel 4 News report, called the revelations “shocking” in an interview with The Washington Post. “It just makes me feel disgusted what the president of the United States did to disenfranchise the citizens of our most important thing, which is our democracy.”
Cambridge Analytica’s former director of business development, Brittany Kaiser, called the new findings consistent with her understanding of how Cambridge Analytica and Republicans targeted Black voters in 2016. She provided an internal company document describing a similar sorting of Democrat voters into categories, including “Deterrent,” from that year.
The document also showed $55,000 spent in Georgia targeting African American voters with advertising, including the Clinton “Superpredator” video.
“This comes as no surprise,” said Kaiser, who did not work on the Trump campaign but received detailed briefings about it while still working for Cambridge Analytica. “I’ve been screaming my head off about this for years.”
More than half of the voters the database marked for “Deterrence” messages were Black, Asian or Latinos, with particularly high percentages in predominantly African American neighborhoods in urban areas in key areas such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, according to Channel 4 News. It quoted voters in predominantly Black areas of Milwaukee and elsewhere expressing frustration that they had been targeted in this way.
The Channel 4 report also showed evidence that the database sorted American voters into categories based on psychological analyses provided by Cambridge Analytica, using terms such as “Individualist,” “Thinker” and “Adventurer” as shorthand indicating what kind of political messaging might be most effective in reaching them.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School in New York who has waged a multi-year battle to learn what information Cambridge Analytica had assembled on him, said he found the evidence of Republican voter suppression presented by the Channel 4 report “unambiguous.”
“At the minimum you have to admire it as a diabolically effective campaign tactic,” Carroll said. “They’re just using free speech, even if it is misleading.”
The Channel 4 report also criticized Facebook for its role in delivering ads designed to discourage voting in 2016 and for being the original source of information apparently used to help segment Americans into categories. Facebook has maintained that the information was improperly obtained, in violation of its policies.
“Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook – what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today,” said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone. “We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library to make political advertising more transparent than anywhere else, and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide. We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voting information campaign in American history.”