1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US religious data platform targets vulnerable people

Rob Mudge
September 27, 2020

A new film reveals how Cambridge Analytica, collaborating with a software company, has created a platform for US churches that targets the poor, the addicted and the disabled — to radicalize them for far-right politics.

A church service in Richmond, USA
Image: picture-alliance/AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch/S. Lumy

For their documentary People You May Know, Charles Kriel, special adviser to the UK Parliament on disinformation, and filmmaker Katharina Gellein traveled across the United States accompanied by a team of journalists and whistleblowers. Their film reveals the political connection between religious fundamentalists, oligarchs and Cambridge Analytica and its shell companies, which have fundamentally shifted the balance of politics in the United States.

DW: Tell me how the project started.

Katharina Gellein: Charles was the special adviser to the UK's Select Committee on fake news that started in 2017, and I wanted to make a film about fake news. Charles was the first person to walk through the door in Parliament and sit down and say to the MPs: "Cambridge Analytica." This was when everybody was sort of at the level of, "Oh, isn't Facebook a nice thing and isn't that good?"

And then of course, shortly after that, [Cambridge Analytica whistleblower] Chris Wiley came with his evidence and the whole case just blew the doors open.

Read moreFacebook's Cambridge Analytica data scandal: What you need to know 

This evidence, I assume, pointed to some form of meddling in the Brexit referendum.

Yes. We documented it for a year, interviewed all the MPs, and then, of course, the political will to follow what the MPs recommended in their report was not that great, because it did prove that Brexit was interfered with.

And we thought, OK, where does this piece go now? Because Charles had placed himself at the nexus of people giving evidence to the committee, people kept bringing him evidence on the side. So somebody brought a whole bunch of evidence about who Cambridge Analytica collaborated with in the United States other than the Trump campaign.

Read moreMen on a mission: The Koch brothers and US conservatism 

And what did you discover?

It turned out to be far-right-wing churches, conservative churches in the US. And they've built a platform that targets mentally ill or vulnerable people in order to draw them into church, to monetize them through donations. That's the short-term goal. To help them is the facade for it, but ultimately the aim is to convert them to the politics of the far right.

And we went to as many churches as we could. We spoke to as many people as we could. Charles looped in a senior academic from Melbourne and a professor of journalism at Columbia, and a whistleblower who used to work for SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories Group), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

And it ended up with these three tiers. We looked into the data side and then ultimately ended up finding that the people who built that platform had ties to the White House essentially through an enormous secret non-profit organization, one of the most powerful organizations in the United States.

Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Charles Kriel: What initially happened is that a Koch brothers-funded charity commissioned Cambridge Analytica, along with a software company called Gloo, to build a software platform that could be used by churches in order to target vulnerable people.

Two journalists, Katharina Gellein and Charles Kriel,  standing at a lake
Katharina Gellein and Charles Kriel spent the last few years traveling across the US gathering material for their filmImage: Metrotone Media

And these are people who are suffering from addiction, financial distress, who might be struggling with opioid dependence or they might be dealing with bipolar issues. And all of these options are available in the software that has been deployed to the churches. And once those people are identified, they can target them with social media. And once brought into the church, they can also be recruited into the politics of the far right.

Read more: Why you should think twice about giving Facebook your mobile number

Is this happening exclusively in the so-called megachurches or is this far more widespread?

Gellein: It was initially rolled out as a marriage program to save marriages at 16 major campuses, and some of those are megachurches. Some of them are as small as village churches, now that it's available to pretty much everybody, and across all faiths: Catholic, Protestant, but mainly evangelical and dominion Catholics.

They obviously wield enormous money and power. But the strength of the platform for the churches is this cheap tool. You can roll it out in a village church, and you can almost use it as a precognitive science of figuring out who's heading for divorce, who's heading for eviction, who's in trouble.

Kriel: I think when you get to the level of the megachurches, where politics becomes involved, then there's more of an awareness. But when you're talking about local churches, I don't think they're aware of what's going on. What they do know is that here's this magical platform called Insights. And they could say, "Well, I'm going to look around in Birmingham, Alabama, and I want to find an area of town where people are suffering from high levels of addiction and divorce." And Insights will show you that.

Read more: Cyberbullying: 'There are no safe spaces anymore'

You can also look at that as a positive thing. You can say, well, there's a community that's suffering. We'll put a church in the middle to help.

Or you can look at it as saying you have churches that are looking for opportunities to build mega-businesses and to go in and to monetize off the backs of folks who are suffering, because they have an unfair recruiting tool for bringing those people into recovery programs in the churches. You know, recovery programs are great when they don't have a second agenda.

Gellein: We interviewed one of the main founders and he essentially laid out how it all works. He had an initial presentation for donors, which we've seen. And that lays out pretty clearly that the aim is political because overwhelmingly, people who don't go to church don't vote Republican. So it was a key thing to apply in certain swing states, because, of course, with enough swing states in the US, you can swing the vote.

Is this a fairly recent phenomenon or was this something that was also deployed ahead of the midterms in 2018?

Kriel: We are confident that it was employed ahead of 2016, actually. At the time, the technology and the data weren't sophisticated enough. In fact, I just did an interview with an ex-Facebook employee, and he was saying around the time of the Obama election that Facebook was a relatively small operation in terms of advertising. This is pre-2014, when Facebook changed its financial model. By 2016, data and advertising were robust operations within Facebook and were being taken advantage of by [former Trump media adviser] Brad Parscale, by Cambridge Analytica, who were directly hired by the Trump campaign.

Gellein: And you obviously have other big data platforms as well, like i360, also funded by the Koch brothers. And so these enormous data sets overlap. They overlap with the data that the Republicans have to gather as intel on their voters.

Read moreFacebook steps up fight against US election misinformation 

Another aspect your film delves into is the issue of alleged attempts to rewrite the US Constitution.

Gellein: We found that the guy who commissioned Cambridge Analytica and also put money into Gloo, the software company, is a member of an organization called the Council for National Policy. And this is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization [a type of organization that is tax-exempt in the US], which means they are not meant to conduct politics or support a certain candidate or get involved in public politics really at all.

They've existed for about 40 years. Their aim was to rewrite the US Constitution by 2020. Now they're a little late, but if Trump wins another four years, they have a very real chance, because they have systematically, over the course of many years, worked to install a Republican legislature in many states. They have pushed out Democrats and pushed out moderate Republicans.

Kriel: There's a couple of different ways to try to reengineer the US Constitution. One is you can go state by state, amendment by amendment. That takes forever and nobody gets anywhere that way. Or what you can do instead is call a constitutional convention. And if two-thirds of the US state legislatures call for a constitutional convention, then one is held and there hasn't been one since the Bill of Rights.

Social media: Fake news and propaganda?

So how exactly would that work?

Kriel: The convention can revolve around a single issue, but once the convention is in operation, other issues can be introduced and you can effectively rewrite the entire document.

As you know, abortion rights are on the table. Marriage equality is on the table, things like federal regulation and the degree to which the central government can control regulation of the states are on the table. What the Brits would call devolution is a Republican thing. They're much more interested in states' rights and states' control.

So the Council for National Policy was founded in 1981, riding off the back of the Ronald Reagan wave. Its roots are in the Southern Baptist Convention, so racism is part of its DNA. And they came together with a sense of urgency, knowing that by the 2030s, white Protestant males would no longer be in a majority.

Read more: Data privacy: 'We're pretty much in the worst-case scenario,' says whistleblower

So they're conducting official business but no-one really has a clear idea of what they're up to?

They're an official body, but they're secretive, so nobody knows who the members are. Nobody knows when they hold their quarterly meetings or where they're going to be holding their quarterly meetings. And so we went undercover to one of their meetings for the very first time, which you can watch in our film.

The timing of the release ahead of the presidential election is obviously not coincidental. What kind of impact are you expecting or hoping for?

Kriel: We certainly look to [the Watergate scandal movie] "All the President's Men" as an example of the power that a film can have and the impact that can have on a presidential election.

Gellein: We don't just want to preach to the converted here. Of course, the accusation can be that it's a liberal film, but it's not really about that. This is about the exploitation of people who attend church. So any normal Republican, I think, wouldn't be very happy with their data being used for purposes that it wasn't intended for.

People You May Know is released on September 28.