Cruz campaign creeps on Facebook user data in search of advantages

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz © Yuri Gripas
With less than two months to go until the Republican caucuses and primaries, the field of Republican presidential hopefuls remains unusually crowded. Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign has tried to gain a leg up on his many rivals ... by mining Facebook data.

Data company Cambridge Analytica harvested the psychological information of millions of Facebook users, largely without their permission, so that the Cruz campaign could project the Texas senator’s messages more effectively, according to a Guardian investigation.

Cambridge Analytica is indirectly funded by Cruz’s primary funder, Robert Mercer, who has reportedly donated at least $31 million to the Texan’s campaign.

The company paid researchers at Cambridge University to collect the psychological profiles of a large pool of US Facebook users. The majority of those surveyed did not give consent for their data to be collected. Cambridge Analytica used a single person, or a ‘seeder,’ to partake in an online personality quiz. The seeder agreed to their data being collected in the terms and conditions. The program then collected information on the user’s Facebook friends.

Cruz’s campaign has paid Cambridge Analytica at least $750,000 this year, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The company also received around $2.5 million from super PACS ‒ large, independent political action committees ‒ that are funded in part by Mercer and his family. The campaign for fellow Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson has also worked with the company, paying Cambridge Analytica $220,000 this year.

Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler spoke about Cambridge Analytica to Politico earlier this year: “I’ve seen their product, and it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen. We know what a Cruz supporter looks like demographically... and this allows us to go into Iowa and match those traits with likely caucus-goers.”

“My understanding is all the information is acquired legally and ethically with the permission of the users when they sign up to Facebook,” he said.

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), specializes in “influence operations,” and works with governments, political groups and companies to use social media data to model human personality traits. Its services range from military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting, according to Politico.

Concerns have been raised about the ethics in using marketing tactics to target voters.

Cruz’s app has also been collecting information on voters.“Cruz’s Crew” awards points to users based on whether they donate (50 points), volunteer (100 points) or share their contact details (250 points).

The app will continue to ask users for their contacts, even if they refuse the first time.

With Cruz passing national GOP frontrunner Donald Trump in an Iowa poll this week, the evangelical senator is looking to gain the inside track the Republican nomination with a win in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in February.