North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and the state’s Republican Party paid $345,000 to a data company that is now under scrutiny for its use of personal information about Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica used the personal Facebook data of more than 50 million users, acquired through a third party, to create profiles of prospective voters and “microtarget” persuasive voting messages to them, according to a whistleblower who told his story to The Guardian and The New York Times.
Cambridge Analytica also worked for the Donald Trump campaign, earning more than $5.9 million in 2016 according to Federal Election Commission filings, and for the “Brexit” campaign in the United Kingdom.
Two years earlier, the data company helped Tillis, a Republican, defeat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by 1.7 points. It was at the time the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history with total spending of more than $121 million.
Cambridge Analytica put a page about Tillis’ race on its website, touting its work and listing the race as a case study.
“Our telecanvassing program contacted 123,138 individuals, resulting in an increase in turnout of 12.57% among those called, which is equivalent to over 15,478 voters,” Cambridge Analytica says.
Tillis won by 48,511 votes.
Cambridge Analytica’s data told Tillis to highlight Hagan’s absences on the Senate Armed Services Committee to reach a certain group of voters. Tillis hammered Hagan in ads and debates on her absences and the rise of ISIS and jumped on her acknowledgement that she skipped a national security meeting to attend a fundraiser.
“We were able to design and deploy messages tailored to these audiences according to their particular psychographic profiles. This was done through a telecanvassing program and a large scale direct mail campaign that demonstrably increased their likelihood of voting, and voting Republican,” Cambridge Analytica said on its site.
Tillis’ campaign committee paid the firm $10,000 on Oct. 21, 2014, and $20,000 on Nov. 6, 2014. It made four payments of $25,000 throughout 2015 to Cambridge Analytica, according to FEC filings. The payments were for “microtargeting.”
Tillis declined to answer questions about Cambridge Analytica on Capitol Hill on Monday evening. Tillis campaign consultant Paul Shumaker would not comment for this story.
“It gives you an edge in increasing the probability that voters would pay attention to your message,” Shumaker said of Cambridge Analytica’s work for the campaign in an interview with Bloomberg in 2015.
Steve Bannon, later a top aide to Trump, formerly served as the vice president of Cambridge Analytica and billionaire GOP donor Robert Mercer funded it, the Guardian reported.
Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from its site Friday and said that a Cambridge University professor “passed data from an app” to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook’s policies. The information was legally obtained by the app from its users, Facebook said.
The app paid users to take a personality test, the Guardian reported, but also collected data on those users’ Facebook friends.
The professor also works at St. Petersburg State University and received grants from Russia.
“In 2014 we received Facebook data and derivatives of Facebook data from another company, (app maker) GSR, that we engaged in good faith to legally supply data for research. After it subsequently became known that GSR had broken its contract with Cambridge Analytica because it had not adhered to data protection regulation, Cambridge Analytica deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives, in cooperation with Facebook,” Cambridge Analytica said in a statement.
Facebook is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s claims that all the data was deleted, the social media giant said.
“This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either. The company has made this clear since 2016.”
The North Carolina Republican Party paid Cambridge Analytica $215,000 in 2014 and 2015, according to the Federal Elections Commission. The payments were “microtargeting consulting fees.”
Dallas Woodhouse, the NC GOP’s executive director, said the company was one of many hired to work on direct mail. Woodhouse said he could not find a contract the party signed with the company.
Cambridge Analytica did not do social media work for the party, said Woodhouse, who was hired as state executive director in September 2015.
Even though federal filings show a June 2015 payment to the company of more than $57,000, Woodhouse said the company’s work for the party ended with the 2014 election cycle.
“There are no plans to use them again,” he said.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from Denver in western North Carolina, paid Cambridge Analytica $15,000 for “polling and research” work in 2014, according to FEC filings. A spokesman for McHenry’s campaign couldn’t be reached Monday.
Wayne Goodwin, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the reports about Cambridge Analytica make him “wonder whether North Carolina was used as a trial run in 2014.”
Goodwin is also concerned about Russian ties to those involved in handling the data.
“Given we’re talking about foreign intervention in our national and state elections, it would seem highly reasonable for anybody to avoid using Cambridge Analytica,” he said. “There are too many unanswered questions, too much we don’t know yet.”
Ben Wieder of McClatchyDC contributed to this report.