‘They were planning on stealing the election’: Explosive new tapes reveal Cambridge Analytica CEO’s boasts of voter suppression, manipulation and bribery
Previously unknown recording reveals extraordinary ‘black ops’ on three continents – exploiting weaknesses in democracies left wide open by governments and Silicon Valley. A new story from openDemocracy.
“I worked at Cambridge Analytica while they had Facebook datasets. I went to Russia one time while I worked for Cambridge. I visited Julian Assange while I worked for Cambridge. I once donated to WikiLeaks. I pitched the Trump campaign and wrote the first contract. All of these things make it look like I am at the centre of some big, crazy thing. I see that, and I can’t argue with that. The only thing that I’ve got going for me is that I didn’t do anything wrong. So they can search everything that they want!”
It was May 2018. Brittany Kaiser, the second Cambridge Analytica whistleblower to go public, had just heard she was being subpoenaed by the Mueller investigation, in a moment captured in ‘The Great Hack’ (a documentary which premiered at the Sundance film festival this week). The media were reporting her February 2017 visit to Assange, another piece of circumstantial evidence supposedly connecting her to the controversies around the successes of Donald Trump and Brexit. Kaiser continued to protest her innocence, and to cooperate fully with investigations. And today we can reveal more about what she knew.
In explosive recordings that Kaiser made in the summer of 2016, excerpts from which are published exclusively by openDemocracy today, her former boss, Alexander Nix, makes a series of extraordinary claims. The onetime Cambridge Analytica CEO talks of bribing opposition leaders, facilitating election-stealing and suppressing voter turnout.
When we asked Nix to comment on this new material, he told us that many of our claims had been proven to be false, and others were completely speculative and not grounded in reality. But what we are publishing for the first time are his own words.
Nix boasts of orchestrating election black ops around the world. He reveals how in Trinidad and Tobago, Strategic Communications Laboratories (the British company behind Cambridge Analytica) engineered a highly successful grassroots campaign to "increase apathy" so that young Afro-Caribbeans would not vote. In Nigeria, evidence was found that SCL used rallies by religious leaders to discourage voting in key districts. Nix also makes a knowing reference to Brexit, although Cambridge Analytica has repeatedly denied involvement in that campaign.
In the recordings, Nix describes one of his major clients, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, as a "fascist". And he sheds more light on the nexus of data, money and power that Cambridge Analytica deployed as it backed Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.
A number of these shocking allegations are also revealed in ‘The Great Hack’. Yet this is far more than a story of one rogue company, now brought low after its name became a byword for electoral controversy. It exposes the back doors through which democracies across the world have been left vulnerable to manipulation. And it is the tip of the iceberg.
What the whistleblower told Parliament
It was almost six years ago, in a London sushi bar, that Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix first sought to enlist Brittany Kaiser, saying: “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets.” Back when she was an idealistic nineteen-year-old Democrat from Chicago, she had dropped everything to work on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Later, after studying human rights and international law, she had moved into the unruly world of trade deals with states like Libya and Iran.
Kaiser resisted Nix at first, volunteering for the Ready for Hillary campaign instead. But her experience of the Clinton machine left her disillusioned and frustrated. What’s more, her parents were caught on a financial razor’s edge; she needed to pay the bills. In 2014, she finally struck her perilous bargain with Nix. He became her mentor, she his apprentice.
Nix had teamed up in 2013 with the alt-right entrepreneur Steve Bannon and the family of hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer to launch Cambridge Analytica. Their mission was to arm a rising populist right to defeat the big data machine built by Obama.
Kaiser’s decision to work for Nix and Bannon was hard for her former Obama colleagues to understand. Looking back, she told me with a measure of irony that she had been guided by the first African-American president’s creed: “It is important to sit down with rogue actors, without preconditions.” Like others of her millennial generation, she also felt dispossessed, impatient with the status quo and hungry for adventure.
I first met Brittany Kaiser in February 2017. She was shockingly frank about her company’s role in the right-wing political revolutions of 2016, but it was clear that she knew even more. We spoke on several occasions over more than a year, before I suggested that she blow the whistle publicly to myself and Paul Lewis of The Guardian. She readily agreed.
She testified against her former colleagues, providing arresting new evidence about their unpaid data work on Brexit for the controversial businessman Arron Banks (now under investigation by the National Crime Agency) and his Leave.EU campaign, as well as possible abuses of Facebook and insurance data. She provided the first real proof of Steve Bannon’s role in setting up these deals for Nix, and of Cambridge Analytica’s exclusive data relationship with Bannon’s alt-right propaganda platform, Breitbart News.
In April 2018 Kaiser testified before the British parliament’s ‘fake news’ inquiry. She covered a dizzying array of topics alongside Cambridge Analytica, including her friends’ cryptocurrency-powered telecommunications schemes in Mexico, and her time working with WikiLeaks’ British lawyers at Doughty Street Chambers on “prisoner of conscience” cases.
The parliamentarians wanted to know more about a group of hackers – alumni of Israeli intelligence – who she had introduced to oil-billionaire clients, and who had infiltrated the Nigerian political opposition as part of a 2015 campaign by Nix’s firm. But when it came to the inflammatory content of that campaign, Kaiser pointed the finger firmly at Sam Patten, a long-standing fixture on Cambridge Analytica’s roster of globe-trotting political strategists.
According to whistleblower Chris Wylie, Cambridge Analytica/SCL used the campaign video in this report from The Guardian to influence the Nigerian presidential election of 2015.
Immediately after running the controversial Nigeria campaign for Nix, Patten went into business with the Russian operative Konstanin Kilimnik. His new partner was not only the right hand of indicted Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in Ukraine, but also a suspected Russian military intelligence asset. Patten has recently pleaded guilty to channelling donations from a Ukranian oligarch into Donald Trump’s inauguration fund. Kilimnick himself is wanted for questioning by special counsel Robert Mueller, and has recently fled to Moscow.
One of the British parliamentarians asked Kaiser the obvious question: “Have you ever worked for, paid or unpaid, or provided information to, any country’s intelligence agency, their representatives or associated organisations?” Her answer was “No;” but pressed, she acknowledged having been “approached” in the past, before her time at Cambridge Analytica, “although they wouldn’t properly identify themselves... I’ve been taught what to look out for: my grandfather was a military intelligence officer for 27 years, and knew when I was young that would be a possibility, and told me what to look out for… and to say no.”
Damian Collins MP, the chair of the fake news inquiry, had one final question for Brittany Kaiser. “If Alexander Nix wanted to reach out to Julian Assange, couldn’t he do it through you?” Without losing her self-possession, she laughed for a split second and responded: “That’s what I was wondering…”
Collins then announced that Nix was pulling out of his own scheduled interrogation the following day. Within weeks, Cambridge Analytica and Nix’s wider network of data, political and security consulting operations had filed for bankruptcy. It took another month before the silver-tongued, polo-playing Etonian consultant accepted his third summons from Parliament. Wriggling under the spotlight, he claimed to be the real victim of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. According to his telling, a liberal media witch-hunt had found him guilty of the victories of Trump (who Nix had proudly helped to elect) and Brexit – which he still claimed to have had nothing to do with.
Nix threw particular doubt on the credibility of Chris Wylie, the pink-haired Canadian whistleblower who first set off the firestorm by revealing to Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer his own role in procuring and weaponising the hijacked data of tens of millions of Facebook users for Cambridge Analytica. Nix claimed that Wylie had left in 2014 to set up his own competing firm, which then itself pitched work for both Trump and Brexit. According to Nix’s telling, Wylie had even spoken of being excited to engage with “crazy evil Russians”.
I was part of the small audience for Nix’s parliamentary grilling. Next to me sat David Carroll, the principled campaigner for data rights who sued Cambridge Analytica to expose the thousands of pieces of political, consumer and psychographic information they held on him and 240 million other Americans. (Carroll’s dogged campaign recently secured the first guilty plea from Nix’s UK firm.) Suddenly I received a flurry of urgent messages from Kaiser, then in the US.
The Guardian had just broken the story of her meeting with Julian Assange in February 2017. Based on private material submitted to Parliament, the article suggested that not only had she discussed the US elections with the WikiLeaks founder, she had even funnelled cryptocurrency payments to the organisation. On the same day, Kaiser contradicted the allegations in an interview with the Financial Times. “I didn’t conspire to leak Hillary’s emails and I have nothing to do with Russia,” she told me despairingly.
I wondered: could this young woman really be the elusive link connecting the Trump campaign to Assange and ‘Guccifer’, the hacker subsequently unmasked as Russian military intelligence? Or was someone framing her to throw us all off the scent?
Brittany Kaiser had already allowed me to review emails and documents in the course of my reporting, and to help analyse her materials for testimony and publication by Parliament. Now she allowed me to privately review a further motherlode of files so I could find out the truth for myself; she also agreed to be followed by ‘The Great Hack’ filmmakers. I understand that Mueller’s team issued a subpoena but it was never served on her, and that she has cooperated very closely with official investigations in the US. I found no indication whatsoever that she might have been involved in the Democratic National Committee hack.
Kaiser had originally acknowledged in Parliament that she introduced Nix to her friends in Julian Assange’s London legal team in 2015, but said she knew nothing of her boss’s own contacts with him. Her cryptocurrency donation to WikiLeaks (made with gifted Bitcoin she had no other use for) had taken place several years earlier, while she was working on human rights issues in countries like Iraq.
If we blame a young woman like Brittany Kaiser for all the failings of Western democracy, or harp endlessly on the significant roles played by Julian Assange or Russia, we risk obscuring where the greatest responsibility lies. As we unearthed more pieces of the puzzle, learning ever more about the back doors through which our democracies have been hacked, I realised the real scandal was closer to home.
Anyone seeking a single master key to the conspiracy of 2016 risks missing the forest for the trees. As Assange himself wrote in 2006, “Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator, even though they are all connected… When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently command and control the forces in its environment.”
Investigations into Trump and Brexit are spotlighting a whole system of conspiracies against democracy, which together do more than any individual plotter to undermine the public good. Leading Western oligarchs, from the Mercers and Steve Bannon to Mark Zuckerberg, did far more than the Russians to elect Donald Trump. The full story has yet to be told. Justice demands that we ask the bigger questions.
Black ops, lies and leaks
Throughout 2016, as a practitioner of politics and technology, I tracked the movements that carried Brexit and Trump to victory. They broke the mould of establishment right-wing campaigns, challenging the broken status quo and tapping bottom-up energies like never before.
But they were also full of black operations, lies, hacks and leaks, with playbooks eerily reminiscent of the Russian political technologists sometimes nicknamed “The Wizards of Oz”. Most strangely, this strange company called Cambridge Analytica, with access to masses of illicit Facebook data and a track record in psychological warfare, seemed to have played a significant part on both sides of the Atlantic.
I personally campaigned against Brexit, I followed the Bernie Sanders campaign on the ground in 2016, and my friends and I lost those fights. We watched the technologies we had been trying to harness for democratic ends being turned against us; we saw hard-right populists hijack our banner of change.
I felt a crack in history opening up during 2016. I was spending most of my time starting up Crowdpac (our political crowdfunding and democratic big-data platform) in Europe. We never sold data, but almost a million people used our questionnaires to inform their Brexit vote; so I understood what Cambridge Analytica was doing from the other end of the telescope. After Trump’s election, I started trying to find out what had really gone wrong and how we could fix it.
Private conversations with contacts on the other side, notably Brittany Kaiser, gave me a glimpse of their murky network of international connections. My wife is a creative and product visionary who had worked at Deepmind, the leading British artificial intelligence company taken over by Google. I told her what I was discovering, and she agreed I needed to pursue it. Over the following two years, this journey took me to dark places I would never otherwise have entered. At times I feared for my own life, or for others’.
In a former life, Kaiser had participated in some of the progressive movements and platforms I had helped to build. Now we shared support for Sanders, experience in private diplomacy and a conviction that data could be used for good. Yet she told indiscreet stories of her own proximity to leading right-wing players, and the moral conflict between some of her work and her underlying values seemed intense.
I decided to find out if Kaiser’s company had truly hacked our elections, whether they had covert links to Russia, and how culpable Silicon Valley and the West’s own oligarchs were behind the scenes. It was not easy.
One former employee of Cambridge Analytica compared others’ reticence to “the omertà of the Mafia”, not least because people were afraid of the company’s powerful principals. The family of Robert Mercer, not only a billionaire but also a data scientist accused of white supremacist views, were its controlling investors. The Mercers’ consigliere Steve Bannon sat on Nix’s board with Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, who Nix sometimes referred to as his “work wife”.
Materials revealed to me and testimony provided by Brittany Kaiser and other sources, some of which have subsequently been published, confirm that Bannon was actively involved in brokering Cambridge Analytica’s relationships with Trump, Brexit campaigners and a flotilla of Mercer-linked organisations. (Whistleblowers have also provided extensive evidence to openDemocracy of the relationships between the Brexit campaign, Cambridge Analytica and Steve Bannon). Bannon admitted last spring that he “put the company together”, but continues to claim he knew nothing of Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds during his time on its board. Earlier this month he launched The Movement, his latest attempt to lay waste to the politics of the European Union and empower the populist far right with data and strategic advice.
Brittany Kaiser and Chris Wylie remain almost unique among former Cambridge Analytica staffers in their willingness to talk publicly. This is particularly striking given that Alexander Nix reportedly failed to pay most of his employees severance they were owed, but himself walked away with a payoff of at least $8.7 million. Nix has denied these allegations, although they were confirmed by multiple sources.
In the course of my investigation, I nonetheless managed to speak with almost a dozen sources with close knowledge of the company’s operations, and gathered previously unpublished materials and insights from a number of them. One senior source who originally wanted to save the company swiftly realised that they had to “kill the dragon”.
Why? For most of its employees, Cambridge Analytica was just another startup, battling for clients in the Wild West world of personal data and advertising technology (“ad-tech”). It overhyped its value proposition, its data architecture and processes were chaotic, not all projects went well; but many felt proud of their work. They compartmentalised the most controversial contracts, blamed Nix and his lieutenants for any sketchiness, and believed that Cambridge Analytica had become a scapegoat for the systemic abuses of the data brokerage industry. “Everyone is doing it,” I heard again and again.
The smoking gun
Brittany Kaiser spoke often about “the crazy things Alexander would say”. But it was hard to find the smoking gun. Then Kaiser and I found an old recording buried deep in her laptop files. It was Alexander Nix’s extraordinary pitch, recorded on her iPhone in the heat of that fateful summer of 2016.
Last March The Guardian, The New York Times and Britain’s Channel 4 News broke the story of Chris Wylie’s whistleblowing for the first time. Seventy-two hours later, Channel 4 News released undercover recordings of Nix and his fellow executives. They talked about ‘honey traps’ that used Ukrainian prostitutes and boasted of secret teams who “ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out” of countries, and “put information into the bloodstream of the internet… with no branding, so it’s unattributable, untrackable”. But even in the Channel 4 sting, Nix was careful to caveat his most inflammatory claims. Not so in Kaiser’s iPhone recording: the mask is truly off.
“What we sought to do here is… to build a workable model of persuasion that could be rolled out across the United States initially. To help us to target people at an individual level in a way that would increase compliance through communications.
“Our inventory has questions like, are you frequently lonely, do you enjoy taking part in new initiatives? It's not an opinion survey. Because we're not interested in what you think about the president. We're interested in you, and trying to work out...” Nix searches for the right phrase: “what are your buttons?
“A few years later we were in Nigeria again, and this was a campaign for [presidential candidate Umaru] Yar’Adua, who was the puppet for [incumbent president Olusegun] Obasanjo,” Nix continues. He appears to be talking about the 2007 elections, not the 2015 race in which Brittany Kaiser and Sam Patten were involved. “So we persuaded our client to do something quite unusual. We persuaded him to allow us to tell everyone in Nigeria that they were planning on stealing the election.
“And the reason we did this was to inoculate them. We ran this campaign for about 12 months saying, oh, the government's going to steal the election. And then, when the Jimmy Carter Center – who was monitoring the election – announced that the election was not ‘free and fair’, everyone was like… ‘Yeah, we know that.’ As opposed to going ‘WHAT?!!’ and getting really angry!” Yar’Adua won the election by a landslide, but the outcome was controversial and widely thought to have been rigged.
Nix’s UK company Strategic Communications Laboratories and its US wing Cambridge Analytica were usually careful to mask their most controversial activities in case studies. But I found one brochure in which further telling details of this Nigeria campaign slipped through: “SCL advised that rather than focusing on swing voters, the party should instead aim to dissuade opposition supporters from voting – an action that could be easily monitored. This was achieved by organising anti-election rallies on the day of polling in opposition strongholds, many conducted by local religious figures to maximise their appeal to rural communities.”
Kaiser heard Alexander Nix give this pitch many times. This previously unknown recording provides irrefutable evidence of him boasting to prospective clients about his experience in voter suppression, his comfort with sowing apathy and fatalism about corruption, and his readiness to facilitate election-stealing. Asked for comment about his own statements, Nix today denied that SCL had worked in Nigeria in 2007.
Crucially, this recording sets in context the claim by a senior Trump campaign source that “we have three major voter suppression operations under way”, made to Bloomberg in October 2016. By then Cambridge Analytica was working simultaneously with the Trump campaign; the Defeat Crooked Hillary Super PAC, overseen personally by Rebekah Mercer; an underground platform doing psychographic microtargeting of congregations and religious communities; the far-right Media Research Center; the National Rifle Association; and a massive, secretively funded campaign by the National Sports Shooting Federation of gun companies.
How to make black youth not vote
Nix moved on to pitch his next case study – a youth mobilisation campaign. Again, all is not as it seems. “Trinidad is a very interesting case history of how we look at problems,” Nix said. “Trinidad's tiny – it's 1.3 million people – but almost exactly half the country are Indian and half the country are Black, Afro-Caribbean. And there are two main political parties, one for the Blacks and one for the Indians… when the Indians are in power the Blacks don't get anything, and vice-versa, you know – they screw each other. So we were working, I think for the third time in Trinidad, and we were working for the Indians, and we did a huge amount for research, and two really important things came out.
“One was that all the youth, Indian and Afro-Caribbean, felt disenfranchised … And secondly, amongst the Indians the familial hierarchies were really strong. There was huge respect for their elders and their parents and their families, but not so for the Afro-Caribbeans. And that was enough information to inform the entire campaign.
“We went to the client and said, we only want to do one thing, we want to run a campaign where we target the youth – all youth, all the Blacks and all the Indians – and we try and increase apathy. And they didn't really understand why… but they allowed us to do this campaign, and the campaign had to be non-political, because no one, the kids don’t care about politics. It had to be reactive, because they’re lazy; inclusive of all ethnicities; bottom-up. It had to be exciting, because kids want to do something fun.
“We came up with this campaign which was all about ‘Be part of the gang, do something cool, be part of a movement.’ And it was called the ‘Do So’ campaign… A3 posters. And graffiti, yellow paint, you know, we cut stencils with the jigsaw… And we'd give these to kids, and they'd get in their cars at night, you know, just make a drawing, get in the car, and race around the country putting up these posters and getting chased by the police and all their friends were doing it, and it was fucking brilliant fun…
A poster from the 'Do So' campaign. Image: courtesy of Kierron Yip Ngow/Facebook.
“Do So. Don't vote. Don't be involved in politics. It's like a sign of resistance against – not government, against politics. And voting. And very soon they're making their own YouTube videos. This is the prime minister’s house that's being graffitied! … It was carnage.
“And the reason why this was such a good strategy is because we knew, and we really really knew, that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn't vote, because they ‘Do So’. But all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which is go out and vote. And so all the Indians went out and voted, and the difference on the 18-35-year-old turnout is like 40%, and that swung the election by about 6% – which is all we needed!”
Again, Nix was selling his company’s expertise in promoting cynicism and apathy to suppress turnout among the opposition. But this campaign was even more manipulative: enlisting young Afro-Caribbeans in what pretended to be an authentic youth movement, secretly designed to manipulate them into surrendering their votes. This is what ‘compliance’ means in psychological warfare: achieving the desired behavioural effect from a ‘hostile audience’.
Asked for comment on the Do-So campaign, Nix responded in an email earlier today, writing, “The objective of this campaign was to highlight and protest against political corruption. There is nothing unlawful or illegal about assisting with this activity. SCL / CA has never undertaken voter suppression and there is no evidence to the contrary.”
Nix’s closing comments in his summer 2016 pitch were tantalising: “We’ve got an in-house intelligence team, so we can do full intelligence protection… Opposition don’t hack your emails and everything else. And we're pretty good at getting intelligence too… You know what? We do a lot of counter operations. You can spend $10 million on an election. Or we can send one of our guys in to go offer the leader of the opposition a bribe, you know, three weeks before polling. It's a very good way to win an election.”
Beneath the veneer, this seems to have been some of the work Alexander Nix was most proud of. This is how he pitched his company around the world, just as he was finally starting to work for Trump. This is the man who the Mercers and Steve Bannon enlisted to help them reshape the American political mind.
On the US stage
In Kaiser’s recording Nix talks cynically about his work in the Republican primaries: with Ted Cruz, with Ben Carson, and then with the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. He claims to have turned Cruz from “the most hated man in US politics” into the front runner before Trump’s wildcard surge. It was not out of love: “We hated this guy. He's far right wing, he's like, you know, fascist,” Nix says of his own candidate. The success factor was big data, which “allows you to literally go in and target every single individual”. What about Brexit? “We don’t talk about that,” he says knowingly, after including it in a list of campaigns they were involved in. Kaiser adds ironically, “Oops – we won!”
Nix compares his strategies to a marketing campaign selling Coca-Cola in a movie theatre. Instead of working on branding and adverts, turn up the temperature. Get the viewers hot and bothered: they’ll buy more Coke for sure. This cynical perspective can be traced back to the founder of the modern public relations industry, Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who wrote: “In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, 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.”
In the early days of the Cold War, Bernays worked to topple the government of Guatemala through a domestic and foreign propaganda campaign on behalf of the United Fruit Company, the forerunner of Chiquita. Decades later, Nix claimed to be at the forefront of an evolution from “Mad Men” to “Math Men”, replacing the lightbulb moments of unreliable Don Draper creatives on Madison Avenue with mass data and predictive microtargeting. He wanted to precisely hit the Pavlovian reflexes of you, me, everyone. Through this lens, voters become rats in the oligarchs’ maze.
As Nix gleefully claims of another campaign in which the son of a billionaire African liberation leader covertly funded the youth movement which then drafted him as their candidate for president, “We created everything. We created a need that didn’t exist.”
A year after this recording, Nix was negotiating an abortive acquisition deal with Martin Sorrell’s world-leading WPP conglomerate of advertising and marketing firms. In January 2018, he finally raised almost $20m for a new company called Emerdata.
Papers obtained by my investigation indicate the Mercers were joined by Chinese and Gulf investors in this effort, although the ultimate sources of their funds remain unclear. Johnson Ko, the Chinese state-linked business partner of American mercenary Erik Prince, briefly joined Emerdata’s board alongside one of his associates. (Cambridge Analytica China was also incubated at Ko’s firm Reorient Capital during 2017.)
The majority of the new funds injected into Emerdata seem to have been extracted personally by Nix through various different pretexts, according to conversations I had with well-placed sources and review of bankruptcy documents. The biggest withdrawal of $8.7 million took place after Kaiser’s whistleblowing, and before Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections went into administration. Many employees were never paid their outstanding salaries and severance: the general sacrificed his footsoldiers, most of whom just wanted to get out and move on.
I first discovered Brittany Kaiser’s support for Bernie Sanders via a YouTube video of a company party at the dog races, arrestingly subtitled “We ‘Rigg’ Elections”. It shows a comedy routine performed by one of Cambridge Analytica’s data scientists, who notes Kaiser’s past involvement with the Obama campaign, suggests she may still be working for the Democrats, and includes this memorable line about Alexander Nix: “He could sell an anchor to a drowning man.”
Listening again to the pitch recording, I felt that Nix, who continues to protest his innocence and attempt to reboot his career, is now the one sinking under the weight of accumulating evidence. What about those who enabled him?
Beyond Facebookistan, New Deal 2.0?
There is no question that Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were somewhat effective in pulling “the wires which control the public mind”, although I have found little evidence that their much-vaunted psychographics actually worked. What seems to have had the most impact was the dubious data hoard they assembled to target dark ads on Facebook, combined with the brutal efficacy of their messages and tactics.
Yet this was just one of the tangled web of conspiracies now being exposed. It is increasingly clear that a global underworld of manipulators and power brokers treated 2016 as a playground of opportunities. The democracies of the US and the UK were left wide open; we turned out to be almost defenceless against their designs. Central players in the subversion of our open societies regularly attend conferences of the global elite, such as last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Most still seem to operate with impunity.
During our debrief in Thailand, Kaiser soon started connecting the dots between her fury at the powerful men who had been pulling her strings, her conviction that the greatest abuses of power were taking place in Silicon Valley, and the way her own company had been used to “manipulate millions of voters across America”. Her curiosity started to sharpen: how had she and countless others been so misled?
“Brittany spent a long time in the underworld,” I say toward the end of 'The Great Hack'. Karim Amer, the film’s co-director, asked me whether I was ever concerned she would let me down. It took me a while to answer. I believed that she had made mistakes, that sometimes things break and cannot be put back together, and that ultimately only she was responsible for her own actions. But more importantly, I believe in the possibility of redemption: both for individuals, and for us collectively as a society. Those who have not gone beyond the pale can always learn and grow. Few of us have made no mistakes.
Nix memorably describes in his pitch how much more effective it is to protect a private beach from trespassers by putting up a sign that says “Sharks! Keep Out”. The brutal reality is that we live in a world that is under constant siege by sharks of many different kinds, from the financial markets to Silicon Valley and the White House. The ultimate goal of Russian interference and billionaire voter suppression campaigns alike is to get us to ‘Keep Out’ of politics: to accept the dominance of transnational oligarchs, and to lose hope that things can change.
This is reason enough to reject apathy and disengagement. The outrageous scale of the challenge calls us to embrace our democratic role as citizens, to join our forces and fight for real change. For all their ruthless cynicism and common methods, the pseudo-movements manufactured by Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon, the Russians and the architects of Brexit can only thrive in a vacuum. They dissolve when confronted with genuine people power.
Bannon, Nix, the Mercers and Facebook will soon have many more questions to answer. Yet Cambridge Analytica cannot be allowed to be the scapegoat for our broken system. Its successes came from its extraordinary access to data, money and power; but it was simply exploiting the back doors in our democracies which irresponsible elites and Silicon Valley had left wide open.
In an early 2016 email thread, Cambridge Analytica scientists talk matter-of-factly about using illicit Facebook likes to build ‘lookalike’ models, months after they were supposed to have deleted all their Facebook data; but one writes that their approach “is not competitive with relatively simple processes that Google and Facebook provide using the wealth of their data”.
Nix modelled his data barony deliberately on the worst excesses of Silicon Valley, while exploiting the loopholes in their platforms to the full. It is long past time for us to learn the larger lesson. The internet giants must do all they can to fix their failings and better serve their users; but they cannot really flourish until their inevitable excesses are reined in by democracy.
Kaiser has given detailed testimony to Parliament about Cambridge Analytica’s retention of tainted Facebook data. We have no visibility into what she told US authorities. The Federal Trade Commission is reported to be considering imposing an “unprecedented” fine on Mark Zuckerberg’s empire, which has also been indicted by Washington DC’s attorney general for facilitating the breach of users’ data without our consent.
Every expert I know believes that the Cambridge Analytica breach was just the tip of the iceberg: my investigation found evidence that other huge ‘friend databases’ were similarly extracted from Facebook and weaponised for political use. Last year I co-founded the Freedom From Facebook campaign calling for Zuckerberg’s near-monopoly control of social messaging data to be broken up; we were immediately targeted with disinformation by Facebook’s own negative PR firm, Definers Public Affairs. Definers is run by notorious Republican ‘opposition researchers’ from the political action committee America Rising, which even hosted a joint Christmas party with Cambridge Analytica in 2015.
Brittany Kaiser initially hoped Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg would turn out to be benevolent oligarchs. Last year she launched a petition calling for them to allow Facebook’s users to own their own data, asking them to learn and change. They have shown no signs of doing either. As a result, ‘Facebookistan’ now has its own leakers and whistleblowers. In recent months, new revelations have shone savage new light on Facebook’s bartering and exposure of user data.
I spoke on the phone with Kaiser shortly before Christmas. “I was being too nice,” she said. “It gets worse every day. You can’t fix it now, it’s not fixable, not in its current form. Break it up with anti-trust laws. Pull away WhatsApp and Instagram… reorganise their business model. It’s completely out of control, and they never thought anything would happen. They’re not really keeping any of it secret; it’s all in the open, but they thought nobody would notice or care.”
Instead of the scapegoat, Cambridge Analytica should be the canary in the coalmine. The urgency is clear: we must secure and renew our democracies. That means closing every loophole that enables the laundering of money and data; encouraging mass participation; and establishing strict safeguards against political meddling by billionaires and underworld operatives (both foreign and domestic). We also have to start building a social contract around data that properly respects the digital human rights of citizens, giving us ownership individually and collectively.
If data is the new oil – a social resource of extraordinary value and danger – then we ought to put it in the hands of the many, not the few, with appropriate safeguards against abuse. If we can build a new wave of technologies that are more deserving of the public’s trust, we will be laying the foundations of a 21st-century commonwealth: a future in which this cornucopia of technology can finally start to be harnessed for the good of all. We need a New Deal for the internet age.
Update, 29 January 2019: This article has been amended to reflect the fact Channel 4 News also broke the story about Christopher Wylie's whistleblowing.
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of the Labour party.
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