The Congress under party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is in an “advanced” stage of discussions with Cambridge Analytica (CA), to use the services of this London-headquartered “data mining and analysis” company, which specialises in helping political parties and individuals win elections by targeted communication and by changing audience preferences. One of Cambridge Analytica’s most well-known and recent clients was US President Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica also played a vital role in the entire Brexit campaign, which resulted in Britain leaving the European Union.

Repeated emails sent to Cambridge Analytica over a period of six days seeking the firm’s response on whether, or not, it was extending any cooperation to the Congress and, if yes, what kind of cooperation, did not elicit any response till the time this report went to the press. The response of Congress’ social media head, Divya Spandana, too is awaited on the matter.

Sources said that if things work out with Cambridge Analytica, the Congress, which is exploring newer ways to fight elections under Rahul Gandhi, would use the expertise of the company during the Assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that are due in less than a year.

However, when it comes to using the expertise of Cambridge Analytica, the larger focus of the party will be the 2019 general elections.

The recent “image-makeover” of Rahul Gandhi on social media, which the Congress says is eliciting favourable and positive responses, is being attributed by some political observers to these recent developments.

Cambridge Analytica is not new to operations in India. In 2010, the organisation worked with the JDU-BJP combine, which went on to win the Bihar Assembly elections. As per its own statement, Cambridge Analytica was “contracted to undertake an in-depth electorate analysis and identify the floating/swing voters for each of the parties and to measure their levels of electoral apathy”. It was also tasked to organise and create a communication hierarchy to increase supporter motivation.

The BJP used social media with a great deal of success in the 2014 general elections, something which the Congress failed to do.

Cambridge Analytica, whose working is being scrutinised by the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for alleged interference by Russia to “help” Trump in the 2016 presidential elections, specialises in what experts describe as “psychographic” profiling. This basically means collecting and using online data to create personality profiles of voters and predict their responses that are then used to develop specifically-tailored content to influence voters in support of or against an “idea”.

The organisation is being investigated by the US committee for allegedly providing, knowingly or unknowingly, “help” to Russian hackers in their efforts to distribute “fake news” and other forms of misinformation during the 2016 campaign.

As per people familiar with the working of Trump’s “digital army”, which was taken over by Cambridge Analytica in June 2016, the digital operations supervised by it had a “massive” impact on the elections in spreading pro-Trump messaging via automated bots and targeting his competitor, Hillary Clinton, through negative propaganda. As per reports, Trump’s bots outnumbered Clinton’s five to one during the campaigning.

Like other data mining companies, Cambridge Analytica too is said to be floating multiple variants of advertisements every day on social media. People’s responses to these are then continuously analysed and strategies evolved on the basis of that response. These ads are primarily floated through bots on social media platforms. The ads that get liked, shared, and retweeted the most, are then reproduced and redistributed, based on where they were popular and the people they appealed to. Ultimately, this leads to data companies being able to develop psychological profiles of internet users.

Cambridge Analytica collects data from Facebook and Twitter and from other sources like television preferences, travelling habits, shopping habits from other third-party organisations and use all this information in “behavioural micro targeting” that “targets” emotional biases. Companies like Cambridge Analytica also use real-time information to determine which messages are resonating more with the people by observing tweets, retweets and Twitter thread discussions that inadvertently show the “personality and preferences” of individuals. The model also uses “Facebook likes” and OCEAN scores to arrive at a conclusion about a voter. OCEAN refers to a questionnaire used by psychologists that describes personalities along five dimensions—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

In a speech last year, Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, said, “We’ve rolled out a long-form quantitative instrument to probe the underlying traits that inform personality. If you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key groups.”

The model developed by Cambridge Analytica uses online data to identify the personality profiles of every American adult. Nix had once claimed to have “somewhere close to 4,000-5,000 data points on every adult in the US”.

Their models are based on the psychometric research developed by Michal Kosinski, who was a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge (hence the name “Cambridge Analytica”). Koinski illustrated that merely on the basis of analysing 10 Facebook “likes”, by using his model, he was able to evaluate a subject better than his or her average work colleague, “Seventy likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew.