Last year one of the biggest global news stories was how a British political consulting firm had acquired data and personal information from Facebook and used it to influence and manipulate electoral campaigns and voting trends in various countries. Following reports in The New York Times and The Observer, Channel 4 News broadcast undercover investigation videos showing CA’s CEO Alexander Nix boasting about the efficacy of its methods which, according to him, included bribery and using prostitutes as well as setting up honey traps to discredit politicians. In this recording he also boasted that the company “ran all of Donald Trump’s campaigns” and had run various successful campaigns in countries like Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago.
The firm used the personal data of approximately 87 million Facebook users acquired via a Cambridge University researcher and app on Facebook (‘This is your Digital Life’). After this data breach, Facebook was investigated (by the Federal Trade Commission or FTC) ), chastised and fined. But some critics pointed out that the fine was just $5billion which really didn’t make much of a dent in either Facebook’s finances or reputation. Cambridge Analytica simply filed for insolvency in the UK and closed its operation. However, rather disturbingly they and their work live on under new and different identities — such as Emerdata (in much the same way that banned religious organisations in Pakistan live on under new names).
Cambridge Analytica also played a key role in the Brexit campaign. They worked through a Canada based company called AggregatetIQ, a company which ‘had the same address and telephone number as … a company listed on CA’s website as its overseas office.” Various Leave supporting campaigns operated under different names and pretended to be separate entities but were all linked to Cambridge Analytica. Like Trump’s and Kenyatta’s electoral campaigns the Brexit campaign also used a high degree of fear mongering, hate, deception and propaganda. And, as revealed by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer, the campaign spending by Leave supporting groups effectively violated Britain’s electoral law because they were actually not separate groups at all. After looking into this the electoral commission imposed fines (on two companies and one individual) of a total of £81,250 and then referred the matter to the police.
But now as one of the key politicians of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, seems to be on track to become Prime Minister of Britain, it seems fairly unlikely that much will come of the police investigation. Cadwalladr is the journalist who has pursued this story determinedly for years and collected much of the evidence and information that revealed the links and methods of those involved. She has been the target of regular threats (mostly of legal action) from funders and leaders of Leave. Despite the enormity of the scandal, the British media (apart from Channel 4 and The Observer/ The Guardian) hasn’t really given the story the importance it merits. Whether this is because of a reluctance to spar with rich and powerful individuals, or whether they are unable to comprehend the enormity of it, is unclear. What is clear, though, is that a system of manipulating elections in favour of wealthy right wing groups has been allowed to survive and function despite all of last year’s revelations. And a sinister example of this was revealed in last week’s Channel4 news report that a recently elected Brexit Party MEP had close associations with CA, (she strenuously denied this on camera i.e she lied, but then after the report was broadcast had to admit the fact).
The connections between Cambridge Analytica and far right groups all over the world are extremely disturbing.
Cambridge Analytica was partly owned by the right-wing billionaire and Republican/ Conservative donor Robert Mercer. Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon is linked to Mercer, and Bannon and former UKIP leader/ Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage ‘ have been close associates since at least 2012’. Brexit also appears to very important to Trump as the President mentions it again and again. Meanwhile, people associated with the deeply divisive Brexit campaign are now prospering in Britain. Among the Brexit party‘s 28 recently elected MEPs are both Nigel Farage and the lying subject of last week’s Chanel4 News report: Alexandra Phillips who worked for Cambridge Analytica on their Kenya campaign (to demonise and discredit Uhuru Kenyatta’s opponent). When questioned (by the reporter Ayshah Tull) she blatantly denied ‘ever’ working for CA, insisting that she was only involved with various campaigns working for ‘peace in Kenya’. She then muttered something about being “under a non disclosure agreement” and continued to deny any association with CA. However, her claim (“I’ve never been employed by Cambridge Analytica in my life”) was belied by the recording of an interview she did some years ago in which she clearly said she was under contract to Cambridge Analytica (her brazen and cheerful lying is something well worth watching… ).
But what is a bigger scandal than the Cambridge Analytica scandal is actually the inaction surrounding it: the failure – by media and regulators and the public — to recognise its magnitude. The public’s lack of action is very worrying— even though it is clear that data harvesting is a lucrative business and is now being used for political manipulation and psyops, people continue to do silly quizzes, be part of chain messages and use apps that provide all sorts of information about them and their networks to companies (an example of this is Faceapp, which many fear is just a way of collecting information for facial recognition databases).