The British firm Cambridge Analytica has been in the news recently about its role in influencing elections in various countries around the world. It specializes in what is known as microtargeting. This is where it gathers up all manner of information about individuals and creates profiles that suggest how they can be motivated in a particular way, using targeted messaging aimed at them to trigger their fears about an opponent. While much of this can be considered legitimate even if creepy, what has been revealed is that the company also produces false ‘news’ items that become viral and has engaged in illegal activities on behalf of its clients.
The company gets a lot of its information from social media platforms and Facebook has been implicated when it was revealed that its vast trove amount of information on over 50 million users in the US was accessed by Cambridge Analytica to aid in the election of Donald Trump. Facebook, of course, is now trying to excuse its culpability, saying that it was ‘deceived’. Does anyone believe Facebook’s claims of innocence anymore?
Channel 4 in Britain sent in a person pretending to be a Sri Lankan representing wealthy interests in that country who were interested in hiring Cambridge Analytica to pursue political goals such as getting candidates elected. The man was wired and there were secret cameras to record the conversations in which top officials in the company, including CEO Alexander Nix, were caught admitting to indulging in all manner of illegal practices such as bribery and entrapment of politicians for the purposes of blackmailing them.
In the video, their managing director Mark Turnbull says tellingly that, “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion.”
The board of the company has suspended Nix following the release of the video.
In addition to Nix, other senior Cambridge Analytica executives, including Mark Turnbull, the firm’s managing director, attended the meetings.
In videos of the meetings broadcast by Channel 4, Cambridge Analytica executives boasted that it and its parent, Strategic Communications Laboratories, had worked in more than 200 elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina.
In another exchange, Turnbull described how Cambridge Analytica can discreetly publicize damaging material about a political opponent on social media and the Internet.
“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. 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?’ “
What surprised me is that for a company that indulges so heavily in covert activities and proudly claims to leave no tracks of its activities, they did not vet carefully the Sri Lankan person they were dealing with and would fall so easily for this sting operation and allow themselves to have meetings in locations that could be bugged. They must have got cocky.
What is also telling is how the company tries hard to ensure that it works in secrecy and that its name not surface in any of its activities or be associated with its clients. That is not the behavior of a company that is engaged in ethical and legal actions.