Big Data, psychometrics, Facebook, and that funny/not-funny orange guy

There’s a very long article that I’ll attempt to summarise so you don’t have to sacrifice one of your limited supply of hours here on Earth. It’s fairly complicated but almost certainly quite important. And like most things these days, it’s got a whole bunch of Trump in it.

Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims to have played an instrumental role in both Brexit and Trump. Their prowess at swinging elections is built on a number of innovations.

First, in psychometrics. Back in the 1980s, university researchers identified key personality traits that enabled them to slice and dice the great sea of humanity. Apparently, we all display more or less of the Big Five traits:

And for once – says the copywriter who’s gnashed his teeth on more than a few naming projects – the damn acronym is both neat and meaningful. I bet there was some serious whooping and high-fiving going on when that was first worked out.

Anyway, back to the spooky stuff. These OCEAN personality traits were a fairly innocuous semi-academic exercise (used mainly for assessment and recruitment of the ‘right kind of people’) until they were accidentally weaponised on Facebook in 2008.

Before Facebook, supplying the info meant filling in a long and pretty weird questionnaire. But researchers created a MyPersonality app on Facebook that made it simple to answer questions and get an instant rating based on the Big Five. Significantly, people could also opt in to share their Facebook data with researchers.

People just love filling in those personality questionnaires, don’t they?

The app was such a big hit that soon researchers found themselves with an unexpected and unprecedented dataset. Millions of people had not only shared insight into their characters based on OCEAN categories, they’d also shared all sorts of details about their Facebook activity.

When researchers mapped the two sets of data against each other, multiple pennies started dropping. They realised you could accurately infer character type from fairly basic details of online behaviour. And you could predict a whole lot else besides. By 2012:

“On the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.”

Now it was simply a question of feeding in more data and continuing to refine the model. Before long they could “evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.”

It seems we’re all way more predictable than we’d like to think.

Soon the lead researcher started to have serious misgivings about where the project was heading. If you could accurately predict personality and core motivations from simple online behaviours, it wasn’t hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where absolutely everyone was absolutely knowable.

In the wrong hands, that kind of insight could be frighteningly powerful.

But by the time he pulled the plug on the project, it was already too late. A company called SCL – the parent company of Cambridge Analytica – had been following the research closely. When their attempt to buy the data failed, they simply went about building their own version.

By creating their own personality quizzes and adding data from all sorts of different sources – including land registries, shopping data and anything from data brokers like Experian – the company was able to build a picture of whole populations in more depth and more detail than ever before. Especially in the US, where data protection laws are much weaker than in Europe.

The question is, though, how useful can all that Big Data be?

This video gives you a good idea. In a slick and faintly terrifying nine minutes, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica explains how they’ve profiled the personality of every adult in the US – and how they used that data to help Ted Cruz (a pretty unappetising candidate) become the only serious contender to Trump for the Republican nomination.

They went on to use the same techniques to help Trump gain the presidency. Rather than relying on the blunt tools of demographics and geography, psychometrics was added to the mix. This not only allowed voters to be categorised into more meaningful groups, it also meant messages could be honed to resonate with different personality types.

Imagine a group of undecided voters in a swing district. Are you a fearful type? Here’s a shadowy fella climbing through a kitchen window. A traditional type? Here’s a grandfather teaching a cute kid how to use a hunting rifle. Both approaches aim to nudge people towards a pro-gun Republican stance, but do it in ways that best resonate with the audience.

The campaign used sponsored Facebook posts, pinpoint-targeted right down to individual streets and even buildings. The individual messages were tested and refined in real time too, constantly optimised to make the biggest impact on voters. And according to this recent article that may give you nightmares, it looks like AI was used to super-charge the whole process, pumping the handcart to Hell even faster than anyone ever thought possible.

Of course, anything Trump-related can seem instantly sinister. And it really doesn’t help that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica looks like Tom Hiddlestone auditioning for the role of an IT nerd arch-villain in an X-Men film. Or that Steve Bannon, Trump’s deeply creepy strategy guy, is on the company’s board.

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

But perhaps the techniques themselves are just a long-overdue step forward in targeted advertising. For years, we’ve been told that online advertising allows for hugely intelligent targeting of audiences. But still, most banners and the like seem comically dumb. “Aha, you’ve just bought a laptop. You are clearly someone who likes buying laptops. I will keep feeding you laptop ads. Even though you won’t need another laptop for at least five years.”

So while the Cambridge Analytica approach can appear downright dystopian in the political context, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in consumer advertising.

Will targeting people based on their psychometric profile create more powerful ads for everyday things like cars, trainers, chocolate and pensions? Or does it only really work in areas where emotions run as high as in the recent US elections?

Either way, I’m expecting my first brief from a psychometric AI planner-bot any day soon.


One day, while sat in a large conference room with a group of clients — I started sweating.

It wasn’t because I was nervous about speaking. In fact, I was nothing more than ‘room meat’ at this particular get-together. My job was to sit quietly and nod along.

However, one of our senior people was taking the clients through a PowerPoint presentation about the business. And the beads began to trickle when he clicked onto a slide entitled AGNECY OVERVIEW.

It was a summer day, so the sweat really began to flow when he clicked onto the next slide and it had the same title. And the next. And the next. And the next.

When he wrote it, I guess he just copied the title each time, rather than type it out.

Overall, we went through about seven AGNECY OVERVIEWs. Each one lit up on a 60-inch plasma screen.

Oh well, these things happen eh?


Yes, they do happen. They happen to me. They happen to you. They happen to everybody. And they’re a right pain in the arse.

The word ‘typo’ is a truncation of ‘typographical error’ and its first known usage was in 1878.

Typos have a rich history.

Apparently there are 500 year-old bibles which say “Thou shalt commit adultery” and refer to Judas being nailed on the cross instead of Jesus.

Surprisingly, The Guardian had a massive reputation for typos back in the day. That’s why Private Eye still refers to it as ‘The Grauniad’.

So why are some typos so hard to spot?

Well, I’ll come on to that. Before then, let me just share two of my favourite typo stories with you.

The first is from one of my mates. He was working for a financial analytics company called Curation. It was his first job out of Uni, and after a few months he was given the task of compiling the weekend progress report. This report was sent out first thing every Monday morning to all the company’s clients.

And one Monday morning he was called into his boss’ office and asked to explain this…


Quite impressive really: squeezing two typos into a four-word subject line.

Anyway, he no longer works there, he’s doing a PHD now. (That’s true)

My next favourite typo story is much quicker. It comes from a friend of mine who works for Sky News.

One afternoon she received an all-staffer from her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. And in part of the email, the gentleman tried to explain that he, and two other senior gentlemen needed to align on a certain issue. His email read: “…so Stewart, Peter and I are going to try and get our dicks in a row this week.”

You never know, maybe he didn’t mean ducks…

Anyway, I think most of you could explain why you don’t notice typos in your own writing.

And the psychology department of the University of Sheffield has investigated the very question and confirmed what you probably already realise: when you’re proof reading, you’re not properly reading.

According to the Sheffield bods— writing is a very high-level task. And as with all high level tasks, your brain generalises simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas).

So instead of taking in every detail, you take in sensory information and combine it with what you expect to be there, and then you extract meaning.

When you’re reading other peoples’ writing, this helps you arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. But, when you’re proof reading your own work, you know the meaning you want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. So the reason you don’t see your own typos is because what you see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in your own head.

That’s why the best tips are to change the typeface; point size; and even colour of your text; print it off and then proof-read. Or better still, give it to a friend to do it for you.

That way, there’s a good chance you won’t be causing impromptu clamminess in your agnecy colleagues any time soon.

How to win an election


‘Truth and light’ (lux et veritas) is the motto of Yale University. It serves as a promise. They have educated five US presidents to date.

The new president went one better and opened his own university. Trump University’s motto was ‘One company. One culture. One goal. Achieving sustainability profitability in 2010’. That should have served as a warning.

Trump University had it’s own playbook. It was submitted to the courts and that evidence has now been unsealed, so the PDF is floating around online.

It’s not big on truth and light. It’s dedicated to the art of the sale and especially how to deal with objections.

First you need to set the stage. We’re told, ‘You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions – you sell feelings.’ So when setting up the room for a presentation, you need to get it right. ‘IPod shuffle, adjust volume as necessary, and cue “Money, Money, Money” song (The O’Jays) for introduction.’

Then you got to figure out how motivated people are to give you money. For example, low initiative would be: “My husband dropped me off and said I had to come because I never leave the house.” That’s why I’m at work, in fairness. High initiative: “I’m ready to make a change in my life because I want to provide a better life for my family.’

No matter what, you ‘Always Assume The Following When Approaching An Attendee During The Sales Break:’

  • They are not 100% happy with their job.
  • Their retirement funds aren’t where they want them to be.
  • They took a lot of time out of their day and drove to the event because they want to have a better life.
  • They want to make a lot more money, and have more options available to them in life.
  • They want to attend our three-day training.
  • That they want someone to come into their life, grab them by the hand, take control, and show them exactly what they need to do to be successful- you’re that person that they’ve been waiting for!
  • That the speaker did their job and closed them- you just need to ask for the sale.

But how do you talk to them one-on-one? How do you get them to buy the bullshit you’re selling? Simple. Do The Donald:

  • Be passionate: There’s no such thing as the magic pill or magic response. Just be strong and passionate! People will be left thinking, “There’s a reason he believes in this so much; I want to be a part of it.”
  • Deliver everything with more emotion, more energy, more excitement, and more intensity!
  • You’re in charge of the conversation; you control the conversation the entire time.
  • It’s not just what you say, but how you say it (be excited, passionate, and intense!)
  • Remember that these people want you to take control. They want someone to grab them by the hand, and show them exactly what to do to achieve their goals.
  • When asking for the sale, you can use this to start the conversation: “You look like you’re ready to get started…” or “I can tell you’re thinking about getting enrolled, what can I help you with?” When asking for the sale, you can use this to end the conversation: “What type of credit card will you be using today?”
  • You need to judge within ten seconds or less if this is someone you’re going to be able to close. If you need to get away from someone that you’re confident will waste your time, ask them for the sale! If they don’t say “Yes, let’s do it,” tell them “Thank you so much for coming down here today. I wish you the best of success; there are other people waiting for me to help them get enrolled. Now if you’re really serious about getting our help, grab a seat at the table and as soon as I’m finished, we’ll talk about getting you enrolled as well.” And move on.
  • Do not let potential students have more than one concern.

And finally, ‘If You’re Still Getting Excuses:’ ‘…say “STOP!! It’s my job to get you to the next level. You will never get ahead in life with excuses. Mr. Trump won’t listen to excuses and neither will we. Excuses will never make you more money; they will just continue to cost you more missed opportunities in life. You’re here today because you’re ready to change that, make more money, and have a better life. I WILL help you accomplish that. I’m going to help you take your first step. Follow me and we will get you enrolled with Trump University, and while you’re filling out the enrollment form, let us know who you would like to bring as a guest. Congratulations and I’m really excited for what you will begin accomplishing in real estate. I’m putting you on a path that you wanted to take years ago. I’m the same as you; sometimes I just need a little push in the right direction. Again, congratulations.”

As the playbook observes, ‘When you’re direct and don’t allow them to make excuses, they realize you’re right and appreciate you doing your job.’

Hail Trump.