Cambridge Analytica: how the 2016 Trump Campaign allegedly used data to target black voters - and the scandal explained

The Channel 4 report alleges that Trump’s 2016 campaign team tried to suppress the African American vote in vital swing states

Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 6:22 pm
Donald Trump claimed an unlikely election victory in 2016 (Getty Images)
Donald Trump claimed an unlikely election victory in 2016 (Getty Images)

A report has claimed that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign sought to deter black voters from going to the polls.

The Channel 4 investigation claims it has obtained a cache of data which shows the incumbent president’s campaign targeted voters in crucial swing states via Facebook adverts, several of which Trump won after the black Democrat vote crumbled.

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Civil rights campaigners have accused Trump’s campaign of voter “suppression”.

The full Channel 4 documentary can be viewed here.

How were black voters supposedly suppressed?

Channel 4 claims the cache of data labels 3.5m black voters as ‘Deterrence’ – voters they didn’t want to turn out on election day.

These voters were then reportedly targeted with ads, which presented presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light.

Clips of Hillary Clinton calling young black people ‘super predators’ are among the ads said to have been used to deter black voters from turning out in support of the former presidential candidate.

The 5 terabytes of data leaked to Channel 4 show the details of 200 million American voters.

The data of these profiles was passed through an algorithm which separated voters into eight different categories, known as audiences.

One of these categories was Deterrence, with the black community disproportionately represented under this category.

For instance in Wisconsin black people make up just 5.4% of the population, but made up 17% of Deterrence in the state.

Trump earning a victory in Wisconsin was crucial to his victory over Hillary Clinton.

Channel 4 said that this pattern “is seen across the US” and that “voters the campaign wished to attract were overwhelmingly white”.

The Trump campaign has categorically denied targeting African American voters.

How are Cambridge Analytica involved?

Trump’s digital team for the 2016 campaign played a huge role in his unlikely victory.

Based in San Antonio Texas and known as Project Alamo, the team was partially made up of employees from disgraced data company Cambridge Analytica.

According to Channel 4, two members of that team are working on the current president’s 2020 campaign.

In 2018 it was revealed that the now defunct company improperly obtained the data of 50 million Facebook users and then sold the data to political campaigns, before providing assistance to the Ted Cruz and Trump campaigns. The data had been collected via an app created in 2013 which consisted of several questions that allowed the company to build psychological profiles on users. The app then harvested data of users and their Facebook friends. The scandal was unveiled by former Cambridge Analytica employee Crhistopher Wylie.

Though the Trump campaign denies specifically targeting African American voters, Channel 4 claims they were shown a confidential document which says Cambridge Analytica admitted the Trump campaign targeted “AA” (African Americans).

Reaction to allegations

Jamal Watkins, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) told Channel 4 that the campaign tactic was an example of voter suppression.

He said: “The thing that’s shocking slash troubling about this is that there’s this category of suppression. That ‘Deterrence’ part. So, we use data – similar to voter file data – but it’s to motivate, persuade and encourage folks to participate. We don’t use the data to say who can we deter and keep at home. That just seems, fundamentally, it’s a shift from the notion of democracy.

“It’s not ‘may the best candidate win’ at that point it’s ‘may the best well-funded machine suppress voters and keep them at home thereby rigging the election so that someone can win’.”

Watkins also accused Facebook of not fully disclosing their “role”.

Facebook responded to the data leak, stating: “since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook – what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today. We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library… and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide. We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voter information campaign in American history.”

Channel 4 says that The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and the White House did not provide comment on the alleged dirty tactics.