Cambridge Analytica, the political-data firm hired by the Trump campaign that’s been implicated in a scandal involving the illegitimate harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook user profiles, did not improve its public standing Monday. That’s because Britain’s Channel 4 posted a video showing Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix describing a series of salacious and corrupt tactics for hire to a reporter pretending to be a fixer for a client who wanted to influence elections in Sri Lanka.
When asked about digging up opposition research on another candidate, Nix reportedly offered to “send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” specifically Ukrainian girls, whom Nix said “are very beautiful, I find that works very well.” That wasn’t the only staged scandal Nix offered to set up for the prospective client. “We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance,” he told the reporter. “We’ll have the whole thing recorded; we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the internet.”
In the video, Nix is joined by his colleagues Max Turnbull, the managing director of CA Political Global (an arm of Cambridge Analytica), and the company’s chief data officer, Alex Tayler. They described working on more than 200 elections, often “in the shadows,” as Nix put it in one exchange. The team then went into detail about how the incendiary information they collect and sometimes stage is then weaponized in a political campaign.
“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … like a remote control,” said Turnbull. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda,’ because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?’ ” The undercover investigation occurred between November 2017 and January 2018, according to Channel 4.
Watch the video from Channel 4 of their reporter meeting with officials from Cambridge Analytica:
This news comes days after Facebook shared that it had suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, as well as the account a Russian-American psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Aleksandr Kogan, who was contracted by Cambridge Analytica to build a Facebook personality survey app called “thisisyourdigitiallife” that was used to mine the personal information of the roughly 270,000 respondents who took the quiz. At the time, Facebook’s developer policies allowed app-makers to collect user data not just from those who gave permission to app to do so but also from their friends. And people on Facebook may have hundreds or even thousands of friends, which was likely how Cambridge Analytica was able to reportedly collect data on about 50 million Facebook users.
Facebook says that although it permitted the data collection at the time, Kogan wasn’t permitted to share the data he harvested with Cambridge Analytica and sent a request to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica to destroy the wrongfully shared user data back in 2015. Although the social media company says it got confirmation of the deletions, it recently learned that didn’t actually happen. The New York Times reports its journalists saw a portion of the data that at least recently still existed.
Cambridge Analytica claims on its website that it’s able create psychological profiles to “effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations” that appeal to each person on an emotional level,” and that the company has “up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters.” It’s not clear where, besides Facebook, the company gets its voter data.
Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica’s holding of targeted user data back in 2015, when the Guardian reported that the then-presidential contender Ted Cruz, who was a client of Cambridge Analytica, was targeting voters using data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge with the data firm’s help. Facebook confirmed in August 2016 that data from Kogan’s app collected and misused data from the company and that Facebook was taking efforts to delete it. Still, Facebook didn’t alert Facebook users, and now the company actually employs one of Kogan’s associates, Joseph Chancellor, who worked with the Cambridge professor to start Global Science Research, the company that Kogan used to contract with Cambridge Analytica.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle now are calling for Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify to Congress about his company’s data-collection practices and how Russian operatives, as well as U.S. candidates’ campaign operatives, instrumentalized the platform and wrongfully collected user data from Facebook to manipulate voters.
And now, with footage of Cambridge Analytica’s CEO describing shady, potentially illegal tactics, in other political campaigns, anyone with even the loosest ties to the company’s work should brace for more scrutiny, too.