LONDON—Executives from Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump presidential campaign, have been caught on tape promising an extraordinary package of propaganda strategies to potential clients including filming opponents in compromising situations with Ukrainian sex workers.
Over the weekend a whistleblower who worked with Cambridge came forward to claim that the company had surreptitiously misused the Facebook data of 50 million people in order to win election campaigns.
Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, was seen on tape talking to undercover reporters from Channel 4 News saying that his operatives would never be caught because they worked all over the world using a number of front organizations.
The U.K. information commissioner responded to the Channel 4 News footage by announcing that she would apply for a warrant to enter the Cambridge Analytica offices to seize evidence. Hours later, at around 11 p.m. local time, a senior politician announced that Facebook “auditors and legal counsel” had just been ordered to leave the Cambridge Analytica offices by British officials.
British Prime Minister Theresa May backed an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica on Monday, and the European Union said it would launch a probe into the alleged misuse of private data.
On the undercover film, Nix’s colleague Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, explained that the plausible deniability was a crucial element and said it was vital that people seeing false rumors online never discovered where they were coming from.
“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again,” he said. “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?’”
The executives made it clear that they worked with former intelligence agents from MI5, MI6, and Mossad who would be able to secure secret or damaging information.
“We do incognito very well indeed, in fact we have many clients who never wish to have our relationship with them made public,” Nix said on the undercover film. “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into links between Russia and the president is reportedly examining Cambridge Analytica’s work for Trump.
The campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million in 2016, beginning that July. Cambridge is part owned by wealthy Republican donors the Mercers and used to count former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon among its board members.
The new disclosures surfaced after a horror morning for Mark Zuckerberg saw $40 billion wiped off the value of Facebook.
During another secretly recorded meeting broadcast by Channel 4 News, Nix used the example of an election in Sri Lanka. He explained that he could invent a rumor that an opponent was gay—and spread it on the internet.
Or Cambridge Analytica would set up hidden cameras and either catch the politician saying he would accept a bribe, or the company would send in girls to seduce them.
“We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us, you know, you know what I’m saying,” he said. “They are very beautiful. I find that works very well.”
Aside from the promise of kompromat, the executives told their prospective clients that they knew exactly how voters were thinking because of their social media access.
“Our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns… It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion,” Turnbull said.
Christopher Wylie, who came forward to The Guardian/Observer and The New York Times over the weekend, claimed that the entire company was based on using ill-gotten Facebook data.
He said Cambridge Analytica had used a few hundred thousand people’s Facebook accounts to reach out and scale up through their social networks to touch “most of America.” The company used harvested information from the accounts’ friends’ profiles as well—updates, likes, and in some cases private messages.
Facebook denies that there was any data breach, saying its privacy systems are intact and that it expects other users of that data (such as people who operate apps on the site) to abide by the same rules.
Wylie said everyone does not abide by those guidelines, even though Aleksandr Kogan, SCL and Cambridge Analytica promised that they had destroyed the data.
Facebook was reportedly informed of this alleged breach two years ago but did not go public to announce that a political consultancy linked to Bannon and the Mercers had access to details from 50 million Facebook accounts.
Instead it reportedly threatened legal action against the publications who were working with Wylie and erased his Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Dubbing himself the #millennial #whistleblower, Wylie has since taken to Twitter to joke about being deprived of access to his “daily dose of well curated food pics and thirst traps.”
A Cambridge Analytica spokesman told Channel 4 News: “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever… Cambridge Analytica does not use untrue material for any purpose.”
In February 2018, Nix appeared before the Culture Media and Sport select committee in the House of Commons in London and said: “We don’t work with Facebook data, we don’t have Facebook data.”