Channel 4 is a publicly owned broadcast network in the United Kingdom, and they produced an astonishing investigation into the shadows of Cambridge Analytica (henceforth known as “CA”)—a large data firm that helped the Trump campaign and others across the globe win elections using a strategy tailor-made for the digital age. This story is partially about Trump, but it’s far bigger than one president in one country. Ted Cruz was the first Republican to hire CA, and the firm shifted their allegiance to Trump once Cruz dropped out of the GOP primary. They represent a small sliver of CA’s clients.
The Channel 4 investigation is being released in three parts. The first hit last Friday, the second dropped yesterday, and a third will be coming later today (we will update this post when it gets released). I strongly encourage you to watch the Channel 4 videos embedded at the top of each section, as it is the picture of investigative journalism, but here is the summary of what you need to know.
It seemingly began with a whistleblower named Chris Wylie, who was the former Research Director at CA. The report opens with Wylie saying, “I played a pivotal role in setting up a company that I think has done a lot of harm to the democratic process.”
Wylie explained CA’s methods in a similar vein to the NSA’s “collect everything” mantra. We are all providing the world with an overwhelming amount of data about ourselves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc…and advertising is becoming more targeted than ever—all based entirely off what we willingly share online. As Wylie put it: “If we look at what Cambridge Analytica does online, it’s coercive. People don’t know that it’s being done to them. Computers are better at understanding who you are as a person than even your co-workers or your friends.”
Steve Bannon gained broad fame as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, but he was well-known before that thanks to effectively being a founding father of CA as their Vice President. Channel 4 asked Wylie “what did Steve Bannon want?”
Wylie replied, “he wanted weapons for his culture war. We offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do, which was change the culture of America.”
So how did Bannon obtain these weapons? Per Wylie (emphasis mine):
“Imagine if I give you a dollar, two dollars, can you fill out this survey for me—just do it on this app—and you say ‘fine.’ I don’t just capture what your responses are—I capture all of the information about you from Facebook. But also, this app then crawls through your social network and captures all that data.”
“So by you filling out my survey, I capture 300 records on average. So all of a sudden, I only need to engage 50 thousand, 70 thousand, 100 thousand people to get a really big data set really quickly. And it scales really quickly. We were able to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple months using this method.”
Wylie said “almost none” of the victims were aware this sleight of hand was being done to them—which is where Facebook’s culpability comes into play. This wasn’t a data breach in the traditional sense where a central location was hacked, but a trick tailor made for the era of software. Third party apps, or APIs, are incredibly easy to build for social networks, and if given the right permissions, they can know as much about you as Facebook does—which is more than most people know about you.
Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica and Chris Wylie while they investigate, saying they may have found some remaining data. Facebook reached out to CA and ordered them to delete the 50 million-plus records they had, and according to Wylie, Facebook never confirmed that they did. They simply took CA’s word that they did purge their records.
Wylie also accused CA of “knowingly misrepresenting the truth in such a way that is conducive to their objective.” Channel 4 pushed back to ascertain Wylie’s credibility on his claim that CA spent $1M on this program and “it was the core of what Cambridge Analytica became.”
Wylie: “This gets at the heart of why are you taking this psychological approach? Why do you need to study neuroticism in people? What’s going to make them fearful? It is, it is the…I was there. I set it up. I was the research director. This is what it is.”
Channel 4: “Some people might say it’s rank hypocrisy for you to try to claim the moral high ground now, but at the time, when you were involved, you were instrumental in all of this.”
Channel 4: “You allowed it to continue, in fact, you were at the heart of it.”
Wylie: “I was instrumental. I was at the heart of it. I agree with you. Um…but I was naïve. I made a mistake. A big mistake. Um…and…that’s why I’m talking to you. Because the very least that I can do is to own up to that mistake.”
Channel 4 then detailed CA’s claims that Wylie is simply a disgruntled former employee lashing out over legal disputes he has had/is having with CA, and asked him about their claims.
Channel 4: “Is this about revenge?”
Wylie: “No. I don’t want to work for the alt-right. If I wanted to recreate Cambridge Analytica, I should have just stayed.”
As bad as Cambridge Analytica was made to look by their former research director, the conversations captured by Channel 4 with CA’s current executives are far, far worse. Part 2 details what CA really does, and even though they are well-known for their influence in the Trump campaign, they also work in Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina—among many others. The problems with fake news and weaponized social media that we experience in America are part of a global phenomenon.
Channel 4 posed as a potential client for CA, representing a rich Sri Lankan family who wanted to influence elections in their part of the world. They brought hidden cameras into their meetings, and what was revealed was incredibly illuminating. Before we get to the seedy underbelly of CA, let’s introduce you to the players in this segment.
Alexander Nix is Cambridge Analytica’s boss, and he is (was?) regarded as a rockstar in marketing circles. CA’s approach—building traditional psychological profiles based off our social media activity and creating advertisements tailored to generate reactions from various personality types—earned him the title of marketing guru.
Alex Taylor is their Chief Data Officer, and he along with Managing Director Mark Turnbull were the first members of CA to meet with Channel 4. These are two of the most senior figures in the organization. During one of their meetings, Turnbull essentially gave us the tl;dr of this entire investigation, telling his prospective client, “it’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.”
The Kenyan presidential election was extremely chaotic. One survey said that 90% of Kenyans had seen some fake news at one point, and at least 33 protesters were killed by police in the aftermath of the election. CA publicly denies any involvement working for the Kenyatta campaign, but in private, they boasted a very different story about their work with the Kenyan president to Channel 4. Per Mark Turnbull:
“The Kenyatta campaign which we ran in 2013 and 2017 for Kenyatta. We have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys, then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing. So, just about every element of his campaign.”
Turnbull laid out the ethos of CA’s activity, saying that “it has to happen without anyone thinking that’s propaganda. Because the moment you think that’s propaganda, the next question is ‘who put that out?’ So we have to be very subtle. It may be that we have to contract under a different name. A different entity with a different name so that no record of this exists with our name attached to this at all.”
The last meeting in Channel 4’s expose came with Turnbull and Alexander Nix, and CA’s head honcho revealed the true nature of what they do. CA may advertise themselves as savvy data geniuses, but Nix proved them to simply be a modern version of the same political grift that has existed for centuries.
Part 3 didn't have the explicit bomshells of Part 2, but it did raise some hairy questions about CA's involvement in the Trump campaign, and any connections to Russian bots and trolls that may have come as a result of CA's work.
This report focused on the American election of 2016 and CA's role in the Trump campaign. Mark Turnbull claimed that CA came up with the phrase “crooked Hillary,” and “we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow—give it a little push every now and again—over time to watch it take shape. And so this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands, but with no branding. So it's unattributable, untrackable.”
Turnbull explained the system set up by CA as one where positive messaging goes through the official campaign, but negative advertising is done through shady third parties, like Make America Number 1—a Super PAC funded by the Mercers—who also fund Cambridge Analytica, and who struck a funding deal with the Trump campaign on the condition that they use CA.
These negative messages would be funded by this Super PAC for Trump, and Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center said that if CA acted as something of a conduit between the Trump campaign and Make America Number 1, that would be a violation of Federal Election Law. It's pretty clear from Channel 4's reporting that Make America Number 1 is firmly connected to the strategy of CA, and they caught CA executives on tape saying that they dramatically contributed to Trump's messaging campaign (keep in mind that this is not verified by anyone on the Trump side, and it's based on video of what is effectively a sales pitch).
Channel 4 also interviewed Hillary Clinton, and she wondered how the Russians bots and trolls snared in the special counsel's investigation were able to target voters with surgical precision—in a similar vein to Cambridge Analytica—who boasts about using opaque third parties to deliver negative messaging.
The point of these negative ads was to depress turnout amongst potential Hillary Clinton voters—not to turn out Trump acolytes to the polls. As far as how this all connects to Robert Mueller's investigation, the video ends with excerpts of the same meeting in Part 2, with the now-suspended head of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix essentially boasting that he has subverted the law.
Question: “So if the US people ask you, are you working for these people? You will say no, you don't know them, no?”
Nix: “We'll say none of your business.”
The conversation pivots to Nix's testimony in front of Congress and whether he was compelled to tell them anything, and his response sounds like that of a James Bond villain.
Nix: “No. It's voluntary. But I did because I'm trying to help them. We have no secrets. They're politicians, they're not technical. They don't understand how it works. They don't understand because the candidate is never involved. He's told what to do by the campaign team.”
Question: “So the candidate's the puppet?”
After their investigation, Channel 4 asked both Alexander Nix and Mark Turnbull about what they said on camera, and…well…it's not a great look for Cambridge Analytica.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.