The data marketing firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) which is linked to both Donald Trump’s former aide and alt right ideologue Steve Bannon and right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, is at the centre of the scandal concerning the Facebook data breach. Investigative journalists in Britain (most notably the Guardian and Observer’s Carole Caldwalladr) have for some years been detailing the questionable way this data firm has used social media data and tools to conduct political advertising campaigns. But CA seems to now be well and truly in the dock because of revelations both about the FB data breach as well as an undercover report in which its executives were seen to boast about the dirty tricks they can use to swing elections.
The undercover report followed the revelations by a whistleblower: Chris Wylie worked for SCL the company that set up Cambridge Analytica and last week he gave the Guardian details of how the firm had “harvested millions of Facebook profiles to influence voters through “psychographic” targeting”. This was followed by an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News which filmed top CA executives boasting about using fake media campaigns, honey traps and the services of ex-spies (from Israel and Britain) to swing election campaigns around the world.
The Channel 4 investigation was done in association with the Observer newspaper, and is another example of the 21st century trend of news organisations uniting and pooling their resources in the interests of big public interest stories. And this is indeed a big story, because it reveals much about the dirty tricks used in the political propaganda war.
CA executives, most notably its CEO Alexander Nix, had a series of meetings with a reporter who was posing as the representative of a wealthy Sri Lankan family seeking to expand its political influence. Nix admitted to the use of fake news and disinformation in these words: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.” He also elaborated on other dirty tricks that could be used against rivals including entrapment, using women and sexual enticement as well as representatives offering ‘deals’ that could be video-taped and used as ‘evidence’ of corruption.
He revealed that for this sort of work they used the services of professional ex-spies from Britain and Israel.
The company’s MD, Mark Turnbull, shed more light on their covert ops by citing a recent project in Eastern Europe saying of their people “no one even knew they were there, they were just ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out”. Also revealed was a bit about how CA covers traces of its operations by using a self-destructing email server to communicate with clients. Nix was recorded as telling the undercover reporter “You send them and after they’ve been read, two hours later, they disappear”.
Cambridge Analytica’s admission of the dark arts they employ in their political campaigns lends weight to the assertions of researchers who have linked the company’s manipulative practices to the results of both the US Presidential election and the UK’s EU referendum. Nix’s comments about fake news and dirt sticking to candidates is especially important given that Julian Assange has confirmed that Nix approached him (prior to the US election) and asked him to share hacked emails relating to Hilary Clinton. The company was hired by the Trump campaign and between July and December 2017 was paid $5.9 million according to the Federal Election Commission.
The Cambridge Analytica story is extremely disturbing in what it reveals about the way in which modern day propaganda is conducted and the way that it manipulates data as well as the extent of its own networks of influence and alignment (including links to Eric Prince of Blackwater fame). Although its activities are now under investigation in several countries and it is under pressure and in the media spotlight, there is still a chance that its activities will continue in some other form or name. The firm has ‘suspended’ Nix, but what exactly this will mean in legal terms is unclear.
It will be interesting to see how the dirt on this dirty warfare plays out… And kudos to the brave and thorough journalists who have exposed this very important story.