Why the unfolding story of Cambridge Analytica matters

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Kenyan women giving birth in the streets in 2020, a criminal Hillary Clinton, £350 million extra per week to spend on public services in a UK outside the EU – all of this was put before us as fact and possibility, rather than the creation of a PR firm which may have been involved in illegal collection of data, disinformation, bribery and entrapment.”  

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In 1928, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of modern advertising, wrote in his book Propaganda:

“....We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

So what's the big deal about Cambridge Analytica using the profiles of 50 million Facebook users to devise political campaigns, including the 2016 run of Donald Trump? Here's why the unfolding story of Cambridge Analytica – which not only tried to craft the ‘right’ outcome in the US, but also the ‘right’ result for the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum as well as vilifying the ‘wrong’ candidate in Kenya’s presidential election – matters.

Size and speed

In 1928, and for decades afterwards, Bernays talked about campaigns based on data from relatively small samples, taken over weeks and even months, to produce the right product or the right candidate. 

Cambridge Analytica, through an allegedly deceptive operation, snared 50 million accounts from Facebook in 2016.

Within days the organisation and its affiliates used that material in their efforts such as the "Lock Her Up" chants against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, or the slogans about the European Union taking money from "our" National Health Service.

Possible violation of US election law

As stated in US election legislation, foreign nationals cannot be involved in campaign-related decisions. But that is precisely what UK national Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, confessed to as he was covertly filmed by Channel 4. 

Believing he was pitching his services to a Sri Lankan political operative, he said: “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy”.

As well as Nix, other senior directors at the Cambridge Analytica-affiliated SCL group and Cambridge Analytica itself are foreign nationals.

And the executives were aware of the US legislation – Wylie said it was a "dirty little secret" that was often discussed.

Entrapment and bribery

Cambridge Analytica did not just ‘scrape’ data and turn it into campaign themes, according to Nix and Turnbull. In the Channel 4 videos they boasted of bribery and entrapment using young women to entice foreign officials.

Nix, who said the firm worked with British and Israeli spies, explained:

“You know these sort of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption....Send some girls around to the candidate’s house, we have lots of history of things”

A Russian link?

Cambridge Analytica's work for the Trump campaign in 2016 ran parallel with Russian efforts to assist the Republican nominee by damaging Hillary Clinton using stolen data.

The Russians had their own "Lock Her Up" campaign, including payments to Americans who wore Hillary Clinton masks and prison uniforms. They bought Facebook ads and promoted anti-Clinton news .

There is no evidence so far that the efforts of Russia and Cambridge Analytica, overseen by Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, were ever linked. However, both followed a meeting between Trump's inner circle and three Russians to discuss an anti-Clinton campaign.

And then there's Brexit

The extent of Cambridge Analytica's data effort in the Brexit referendum has yet to be revealed. However, they may have violated UK election laws.

In spring 2016, the BeLeave advocacy group – who were portrayed as independent – suddenly received £625,000, much of which was spent on work by Aggregate IQ, a sub-contractor for Cambridge Analytica.

Wylie and BeLeave's Shahmir Sanni say BeLeave was effectively a cover for the official Vote Leave campaign to use the money, which would have taken Vote Leave beyond the legal limit.

Wylie told a select parliamentary committee of a "common plan" to get around the law and said, "[There] could have been a different outcome had there not been, in my view, cheating”.

Transparency

Beyond the headline-grabbing revelations is another key difference between the 1920s and 2018.

Edward Bernays was open and transparent about  his role in data collection and manipulation. Until it was outed by whistleblowers and undercover videos, Cambridge Analytica had not acknowledged its efforts. Nor had its clients, from Kenya to the US to the UK. 

Kenyan women giving birth in the streets in 2020, a criminal Hillary Clinton, £350 million extra per week to spend on public services in a UK outside the EU – all of this was put before us as fact and possibility, rather than the creation of a PR firm which may have been involved in illegal collection of data, disinformation, bribery and entrapment.

All of this is an important 21st-century update on Bernay's 1928 observation:

"We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."

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