The New York Times article Bolton Was Early Beneficiary of Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook Data includes the passage:

In the two years that followed, Mr. Bolton’s super PAC spent nearly $1.2 million primarily for “survey research,” which is a term that campaigns use for polling, according to campaign finance records.

But the contract between the political action committee and Cambridge, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, offers more detail on just what Mr. Bolton was buying. The contract broadly describes the services to be delivered by Cambridge as “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” (emphasis added)

To do that work, Cambridge used Facebook data, according to the documents and two former employees familiar with the work.

“The data and modeling Bolton’s PAC received was derived from the Facebook data,” said Christopher Wylie, a data expert who was part of the team that founded Cambridge Analytica. “We definitely told them about how we were doing it. We talked about it in conference calls, in meetings.”

The phrase "behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging" stands out, and I'm wondering particularly about the second part; "psychographic messaging". What might this mean in this context? Is it just an obscure or stylized phrase, or does it refer to some established concept?

Would "messaging" refer to sending messages as part of the research, or is this term more abstract in this context?

3 Answers 3


The term microtargeting means addressing people in units of one. Microtargeted advertisements or messages are things like Facebook ads (which can be shown to individuals) and direct mail (which again, can be addressed to individuals). This is distinct from normal advertising in politics, which is broad-based, e.g. television, radio, and newspaper advertising. Broad-based messages are seen by both sides and can lead to both positive and negative reactions.

Behavioral means that they are trying to affect how people act.

Messages are forms of communication.

Psychographics is classifying people by attributes. Here those attributes would be ideological beliefs. By applying the modifier to messages, it's saying that the messages are individualized to each recipient.

In this context, what they are saying is that they are advertising directly to individuals based on their ideological beliefs with the intent of encouraging particular behavior. I.e. they are using personally tailored messaging to encourage people to vote for their candidate. They used the research to choose the (micro)targets. The messages were sent separately and after.

Cambridge Analytics may or may not have been the ones who sent the messages. It's not clear from the scrap of the story that you posted. The messages and the research could be separate activities even if the same organization performed both.

Cambridge Analytics performed research to determine what people's beliefs were. Then later they sold that information to various groups. Those groups could then send messages tailored to the recipients. Cambridge Analytics may or may not have performed that service for some of them. Anyone with access to Facebook advertising could have sent the messages. Perhaps Cambridge Analytics would have avoided it, as it might have made Facebook suspicious about how they were using their "research" data.

  • Thank you for taking the time to describe each term and then to apply this to the current context. Excellent SE answer.
    – uhoh
    Mar 25, 2018 at 0:45
  • Do you have a source for "units of one"? Maybe some math would be good enough though; if a campaign had a main group of a million, and 20 binary subcategories that got a different variation of some part of a message there would be a reasonable chance someone would get a unique message, but I'm not clear the state of the art has gotten quite that advanced yet.
    – user9389
    Mar 26, 2018 at 16:08

It's just a mouthful to say targeted messaging and advertising, with the audience segmented based on lots of data.

psychographics |ˌsīkōˈgrafiks|

pl. noun [ treated as sing. ]

the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria, especially in market research.


psychographic adjective

(taken from the macOS built-in dictionary.)

  • Are you certain, or is this just speculation? According to the article, this was supposed to be research, but are you suggesting that it was more like advertising?
    – uhoh
    Mar 24, 2018 at 15:58
  • Actually, reading further, it does indeed sound like advertising; "Using the psychographic models, Cambridge helped design concepts for advertisements for candidates supported by Mr. Bolton’s PAC, including the 2014 campaign of Thom Tillis..."
    – uhoh
    Mar 24, 2018 at 16:17
  • 2
    @uhoh: Yes, it's about building segments of users based on the data you have, with an eye on what works best for each segment. An ad is just another form of messaging - usually shorter, paid for, and leading to a longer message. Mar 24, 2018 at 16:23

"Behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging" means that they are trying to develop political messaging tailored to individuals or uniform (like-minded) groups based on in-depth analysis of personal data scraped from Facebook and similar sites. This isn't about polling or advertising in any overt sense. The intent was to gather sufficient private data so that public statements could be crafted to produce maximal impact within targeted audiences.

The idea itself isn't novel or unusual. It's an old and tawdry politics/sales tactic to say different things to different people just to get them to go along with you. It's troubling because of the depth and scale of it: throwing huge amounts of computer power at the task of digging into everyone's private data and public communications to discover exploitable information. It's a lair's paradise...

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