Cambridge Analytica (CA) specialised in using ‘psychographic’ profiling to influence elections. It scooped up large volumes of personal data to create personality profiles for individual voters, who were then microtargeted via social media with specifically tailored content designed to encourage them to vote in a particular way – or not to vote at all.
The company was an offshoot of the SCL Group and was bankrolled by the right-wing US hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Between 2005 and 2015, SCL Group’s largest shareholder was the property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz. In 2011, Tchenguiz and his brother Robert were arrested by the Serious Fraud Office as part of its investigation into the collapse of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. Tchenguiz also has business connections with the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who in turn is closely linked to both Vladimir Putin and Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort. Far-right ideologue Steve Bannon, the former Editor in Chief of Breitbart London and Trump’s former chief strategist, was on the board of Cambridge Analytica.
CA’s former director Alexander Nix claimed that the company had ‘somewhere close to 4,000 or 5,000 data points on every adult in the US’. It is not known how much data it amassed on UK citizens, but it is clear that the company, and associated data firm AggregateIQ (AIQ), played a major role in the Brexit referendum.
The Observer reported that Leave.EU’s communications director Andy Wigmore said that Mercer offered Cambridge Analytica’s help to Ukip/Leave.EU leader Nigel Farage for free. However, Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said in his book that in October 2015 his group hired Cambridge Analytica, a company that uses ‘big data and advanced psychographics’ to influence people. Reuters also reports that in a November 2015, Leave.EU said on its website that Cambridge Analytica ‘will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters’.
That CA was working closely with Leave.EU is strongly suggested by a Youtube video of Leave.EU’s launch, which shows Banks sitting next to Brittany Kaiser, a senior Cambridge Analytica executive. Kaiser also featured on Leave.EU’s Facebook pages as its ‘director of programme development’.
The ‘official’ Vote Leave campaign declared spending of £3.9m, more than half its £7m campaign budget limit, on the services of a company closely associated with Cambridge Analytica: AggregateIQ. Moreover, in July 2018 the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave had illegally funnelled almost £675,315 to the same company via BeLeave, run by fashion student Darren Grimes, and another £100,000 via pro-Brexit group Veterans for Britain. Grimes and the responsible person for Vote Leave were referred to the Metropolitan Police.
Cambridge Analaytica’s role in Trump’s presidential campaign has also come under scrutiny. In December 2017 US Special Counsel Robert Mueller was reported to have requested that CA turn over internal documents as part of its investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s team and Russia during the 2016 election. Michael Flynn – who had multiple contacts with Russian officials and has pleaded guilty to making ‘false, fictitious and fraudulent statements’ to the FBI – worked closely with CA on the Trump campaign, which had hired CA to run its data operations at the suggestion of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (also under investigation by Mueller).
CA produced hundreds of thousands of ads that were microtargeted at US voters. Particular attention was paid to voters in a small number of swing states, on whom the election’s result largely depended.
Many of these ads were designed to deter voters from voting for Hillary Clinton. A parallel campaign of targeted Facebook ads, paid for by Russian sources, used material hacked from the Clinton campaign, distorting this to suggest criminal activity on the part of Clinton and other Democrats.
Flynn and other members of the Trump team are strongly suspected of having coordinated these efforts with Russian state operatives. Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix is known to have made contact with Julian Assange to offer to help distribute material from Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. There is also a question of how the data reached Julian Assange with allegations that Nigel Farage may have been the conduit.
In July 2018, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced that it had found evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s data files had been accessed from Russia. By this stage, Cambridge Analytica had been dissolved amid the continuing scandal, but the ICO announced that it would be bringing criminal charges against its parent company, SCL Elections. It also revealed that an estimated 87 million users had their data harvested.
The massive amounts spent on the services of Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ by the Brexit campaigns suggest that the microtargeting of British voters was very extensive. The nature of the material that was used to target these voters is still not known, as this would only have been visible to individual voters on their social media feeds. Facebook have agreed to release this to the inquiry by Damian’s Collins’s parliamentary committee on culture, media and sport. It is also entirely possible that the Russian social media campaign to promote Brexit using accounts posing as UK citizens was able to draw on the same illegally harvested data.
In its lack of transparency and its manipulation of voters, using techniques originally developed for military psyops, the Brexit campaign can be seen as a successful dry run for Trump’s election five months later.
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