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Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal extends to local issues — like fracking

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The oil and gas industry paid to control voter opinion and stop Colorado's anti-fracking forces. - LONNY GARRIS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Lonny Garris / Shutterstock.com
  • The oil and gas industry paid to control voter opinion and stop Colorado's anti-fracking forces.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a political consulting firm that has been making a lot of headlines of late. The company stands accused of illegally obtaining the Facebook data of as many as 87 million of the social media platform's users. It's also the firm that Donald Trump's campaign used during the 2016 election, and if CA's own hype is to be believed, it's the main reason Trump now occupies the White House.

Skeptics claim that CA's use of big data from Facebook is no different than that of the many other consulting companies that have turned to Zuckerberg's platform in their efforts to manipulate voters through microtargeted messaging. But CA claims it is different.

The company says it can use the vast amounts of information that each of us exposes daily online to psychographically target each of us. In other words, the company believes it can expose individuals of its choosing to specific information and images (propaganda) that, based on the targeted person's psychological profile, will make them like or dislike a particular candidate or vote a certain way on, say, a ballot measure — like an oil and gas setback initiative.

While such claims may seem like some fictional dystopian nightmare, they are certainly far more serious than that, and the future is now.

Thanks to Facebook, anyone who built an app on the platform in the early days or has enough money to buy the data can now know who your friends are, what you like, what you watch and what websites you visit. They can know your race, sexual orientation, how you vote, if you vote and, in some instances, who you voted for. They can know your fears and your secret desires. Thanks to GPS tracking, these companies even know where you go, where you shop, whose house you visit, what hotel room you stay in and for how long, and where and what you like to eat. And worse, thanks to recent disclosures by Facebook, we now know that for the 80 percent of Facebook users who use an Android phone, they also know every person and phone number you have called or texted in the past several years.

But the truly scary part of this privacy fiasco is what these psychologists, turned ad men, turned political manipulators can do with all your information.

The experts tell us that a properly trained, computer-assisted psychographic targeter can take just 10 of your Facebook "likes" and with great accuracy determine your race, gender and political persuasion. With 30 "likes" they can know as much about you as a good friend. A few hundred of such clicks and they rival your significant other. And with a few hundred more and a properly programmed computer, they know more about you than you do. CA claims to have thousands of data points on each of more than 250 million U.S. citizens.

That's disturbing no matter who owns the information. It's even scarier considering who does.

CA is mostly owned by Robert Mercer, the mercurial hedge-fund-managing billionaire who also funds the radical right Breitbart News and a lot of the most polarizing, conservative — and often racist — politicians in the country, including Donald Trump. CA was also presided over by Trump advisor Steve Bannon until his recent falling out with the Mercers.

Cambridge Analytica has also been in the news in Colorado of late. It turns out that the company was hired by GOP political operatives here in 2014-15 to target a select few races in an effort to flip control of the state Senate from Democrats to Republicans.

The Washington Post recently published a detailed internal report from CA, which describes its Colorado activity during the period in question. In the report, CA basically takes credit for the Republicans retaking control of the Colorado Senate in 2014 for the first time since 2004.

The report describes how the company worked with then Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman to choose four Senate races that the company felt it could impact using its data and microtargeted messaging.

In the end, CA used its voodoo manipulation techniques for Republican Tim Neville in District 16, Republican Larry Queen in District 20, Republican Beth Martinez Humenik in District 24 and Republican Laura J. Woods in District 19.

According to CA and the final vote counts, it worked. Three Republicans won and Bill Cadman was transformed into the Senate Majority Leader. (Cadman, by the way, joined Whiting Petroleum's government affairs team at the conclusion of his 16-year legislative career in 2016.)

It's been previously reported by Denver7 and the Denver Post that the political entities that engaged and paid for the services of CA were the Senate Majority Fund, Concerned Citizens for Colorado and the Centennial Coalition. In all, CA received $444,000 in 2014-15 from Concerned Citizens and an additional $16,500 from Centennial Coalition. Centennial's money appears to have originally come from Concerned Citizens, which also gave an additional $10,000 to SCL Group, CA's parent company.

To date, the reporting on Cambridge Analytica's political activity in Colorado has pretty much stopped at the Senate Majority Fund and the other two "dark money" entities that paid for the data.

But the story of how big data from Facebook and elsewhere is being used to manipulate the voters of Colorado really only begins there.

The media acts like the three entities that hired and paid CA are so mysterious that we can never understand the real powers behind them or what those powers might want. But that's not necessarily the case.

A good deal of the money that made its way into the groups in Colorado working with CA came from the oil and gas industry, an industry that has a long relationship with CA's parent company, SCL Group.

It has been often reported that the oil and gas industry provides more money to the Senate Majority Fund than any other sector. The International Business Times reports that during the 2014-16 period, the oil and gas industry poured more than $1.1 million into the Senate Majority Fund. During this same period, Boulder Weekly found that Noble Oil and Anadarko Petroleum alone pitched in $204,000. We know that a good portion, if not all of Centennial Coalition's money, came in the form of a $100,000 grant from Concerned Citizens for Colorado; but where did Concerned Citizens get its money, a portion of which was used to pay CA $444,000?

While the whole purpose of using a dark money operator like Concerned Citizens is to hide the sources of its funding, Boulder Weekly identified at least one source. Noble Oil gave Concerned Citizens $500,000 between 2014 and 2016.

Those who oppose fracking, like these Denver protesters, are up against CA-style tactics. - JOHN DUFFY / FLICKR.COM
  • John Duffy / Flickr.com
  • Those who oppose fracking, like these Denver protesters, are up against CA-style tactics.

It's clear from the money trail that the oil and gas industry was an enthusiastic funder of the organizations behind CA's efforts that helped Republicans take over the Colorado Senate in 2014. In many ways, considering the growing anti-fracking backlash at the time, that's hardly a surprise.

But if you let the story end there, you will fail to see the even larger and more disturbing picture of how big data from Facebook and elsewhere is being used to manipulate and thereby threaten our democratic systems.

The 2014-15 time frame was a crucial turning point for the oil and gas industry in Colorado. Cities up and down the Front Range had voted in moratoriums and bans on fracking and other extraction activities. More than enough citizens, over a quarter million, had signed petitions to place two initiatives on the November ballot. The industry was on its heels and knew it. But what could it do?

It now appears that oil and gas interests decided to double down on big data and microtargeting. The chump change of the CA days were over. The industry had successfully manipulated the election outcomes to gain a pro-oil majority in the state Senate, so why not use the same techniques statewide to turn the tables on the anti-fracking, pro-community rights movement that was threatening the industry by potentially putting its future to a vote of the people?

Anadarko and Noble created CRED (Citizens for Responsible Energy Development) in 2012. The two companies pumped millions into the organization, which they claimed was for purely educational purposes. But that operation on its own hadn't even slowed the growing opposition. The industry needed another tool, a political tool that could do for the industry on fracking what CA did for the Senate. And so Protect Colorado's Environment, Economy and Energy Independence was born. Despite the long, green-washed name, Protect Colorado's filing documents at the Secretary of State's office establish its real purpose quite bluntly: "To support state and local ballot initiatives promoting responsible oil and gas development, and oppose state and local ballot initiatives attempting to limit or ban oil and gas development, including any ban or restriction on hydraulic fracturing."

Between 2014 and 2016, Anadarko funded Protect Colorado to the tune of $10,827,736. Noble kicked in an additional $9,742,500 in the same time period. CRED was likewise funded to eight figures, according to its operation director in 2015. So where did all that money go?

A great deal of the money that flows into Protect Colorado flows back out to an Oregon-based company called Pac/West Communications, which watchdog group Polluterwatch claims actually created Protect Colorado in the first place. What Pac/West Communications then does sounds an awful lot like what Cambridge Analytica does.

As previously reported by Boulder Weekly in a July 2016 article titled "Behind closed doors," a recording of a panel presentation by Mark Truax, a consultant to Pac/West Communications serving at the time as director of operations and coalitions for CRED, was made at the annual Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission meeting in Oklahoma City in September 2015. Truax was speaking to industry leaders and regulators at the time.

Thanks to the CA scandal, we now have a better understanding of how big data from Facebook and other sources can be weaponized to manipulate certain groups of targeted voters and non-voters.

With that in mind, consider what is actually being said by Truax in the following excerpts from the recording of his slideshow presentation:

"Everything we do is built off of this statewide model. So we took and did a number of, did some research, both polling, we did mail testing and phone testing, we also did digital testing. All of that has now been verified by an [inaudible]. To build a statewide model... We have scored 3.9 million Colorado voters in our databases, on their opinion of fracking. Everything we do then gets fed back in to this database so that we can use it at a later time...

So that really is our true backbone. So some of the tools that we've used... On the left, you'll see former Interior Secretary Gail Norton. She is also a good Coloradan. I would send this to probably 80 percent of you in this room. Because it has Gail Norton and she is a Republican. I would probably not send this ad to many people in this room, or this mailing with President Obama. However, when we saw and did our testing, his statement on natural gas — that it's able to help the environment — when sent and delivered to the right Democrats, we moved Democrats 9 points in our favor...

So we had to go, alright, how do we talk to independents, how do we talk to Democrats, and how do we talk to Republicans? How do we talk to moms, how do we talk to hunters and anglers? There is a lot of movement that we have — so we are really making sure we have the right message for the right folks. Same with our digital ads. Here are a couple of examples of our digital ads talking about jobs. See that on the left, the one in the back there — nevermind Vladimir Putin we will talk about him in just a moment — really focuses on hunters and anglers...

I love this particular graphic with Vladimir Putin, a little over a year ago when Russia and Ukraine crisis was going on, for lack of a better term, we transitioned our entire digital asset for about 3 weeks to an energy security message. The U.S. had recently surpassed Russia as the No. 1 natural gas producer [inaudible], and Vladdy looks pretty tiffed. But we were able to move very quickly, No. 1, and adjust with the times and the media. And No. 2, it was a hit and became our best producing message. So we could do real-time testing and see how this actually responds and how folks are able to respond...

We really truly have been able to test a lot of things that have only been done in concept, only been done paper wide, by political strategists around the country, but put it in play, put it in motion and demonstrate that it can be done.

So 2014 victories. I encourage you to also take a look at this. This is Protect Colorado, which is kinda the political arm we work with, the political entity CRED stays strictly educational. This document that I have on the back counter really outlines, kinda the timeline of everything that happened. In Loveland, in June of '14, the industry saw our first victory. And we moved the needle 10 points in two months, from having the measure pass 60-40, to defeating it 52-48. This was the industry's first victory to date. We were 0 and 5, going into this and we really needed to change the tide... Thanks to a lot of effort, 13 pieces of direct mail, seven campus passes, and over 12.2 [million] digital impressions generated ... we moved it 10 points in two months. This is what set off the wave with the opposition. Whoops, the oil and gas industry got organized and they figured out how to defeat us.

In Windsor, pro-active canvassing. There was rumor they were going to put a ballot measure on, a community bill of rights, so we did have the data in Windsor, knowing that fight's going to come back.

Even more of a preemptive strike in Fort Collins, looking at electing a pro [oil and gas] city council, and making sure that the right city council members got elected to the city council to stop a potential fracking ban. And finally in Denver... We then also elected a pro city council, a pro-energy city council 7-6 on the conservative count. My count is like 9-4 in our favor for Denver City Council. To try and push something through there, which the opposition was trying to do, is now very difficult. So we have been very, very [inaudible]. And we've been able to keep municipal ballots and municipal ballot measures off in every city and county across Colorado..."

Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Bill Cadman - PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Public Domain
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) and Bill Cadman

It's mind-boggling and disturbing to consider that the oil and gas industry has "scored" 3.9 million Colorado voters based on their data-gathering operation. Imagine using more than 12 million targeted digital impressions and 13 different direct mail pieces all designed to influence certain people in particular ways based on their data profile, just to change the outcome of a single vote on a local moratorium in tiny Loveland, Colorado. The audacity of the industry to boast about using big data, and to some degree psychographic targeting to determine the outcomes of our local city council elections is shocking.

(The fight continues: The Secretary of State's Office has recently approved signature gathering for ballot initiatives aimed at controlling and taxing oil and gas.)

These manipulative practices by Pac/West and the oil and gas industry have nothing to do with democracy. They are not simply politicking in the modern age. This type of abuse of Big Data could well spell the end of democracy as both sides are using it to manipulate the population in ways that are increasing our polarization and keeping us stuck in our own media-reinforced feedback loops. Sadly, we have done this to ourselves by our willingness to surrender our privacy to Facebook and other digital platforms that were built to entertain us in exchange for the keys to our psyche, at the cost of our freedom.

This is why numerous social scientists believe that without government intervention soon to stop this degradation of our democratic systems, Facebook and those who can steal or buy its massive data will very quickly control the political systems of democracies around the world.

Consider this question and answer posed by award-winning investigative journalist and social-scientist Nafeez Ahmed in a recent article about Facebook and SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, for Insurge/Intelligence: "What do NATO, private military contractors, giant arms manufacturers, wine merchants, the NSA, Trump, British property tycoons, Russian oligarchs, and Big Oil have in common? The world's largest social network."

This story first appeared in the Boulder Weekly.


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