Cambridge Analytica Execs Caught Discussing Extortion and Fake News
In a series of undercover videos filmed over the last year, Britain's Channel 4 News caught executives at Cambridge Analytica appear to say they could extort politicians, send women to entrap them, and help proliferate propaganda to help their clients. The sting operation was conducted as part of an ongoing investigation into Cambridge Analytica, a data consulting firm that worked for President Trump's 2016 campaign.
The video follows an investigation by The Guardian and The Observer, along with The New York Times, which revealed that Cambridge and its related company, SCL, harvested data on 50 million Facebook users, and may have kept it, despite promises to Facebook that they deleted the information in 2015. Cambridge and SCL have denied these accusations, and in a statement to Channel 4, the company also denied "any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called 'honey-traps' for any purpose whatsoever."
The video evidence suggests otherwise.
In a series of five meetings and phone calls beginning in December 2017, a Channel 4 reporter posed as a fixer for a client they said was working to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka. They met with Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix; Mark Turnbull, managing director of CA Political Global; and Alex Tayler, chief data officer for Cambridge. They probed them on all manner of underhanded tactics, from deliberately spreading fake news to making up false identities. According to the video, the Cambridge executives took the bait. A spokesperson for Cambridge did not respond to WIRED's request for comment about Channel 4's report.
In one January, 2018 meeting shown in Channel 4's video, Nix appears to outline a potential plan to send operatives to bribe the candidate's political opponents and capture it on video. "They will offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded on cameras, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the internet," Nix said in the video. The Channel 4 video also shows Nix suggesting that they could send "some girls around to the candidate’s house."
"I’m just saying, we could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us you know, you know what I’m saying,” the video shows Nix saying.
The Channel 4 video also shows Nix expressing a willingness to help the "client" disseminate lies. “These are things that, I mean, it sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed,” he said.
In a separate November 2017 meeting filmed by Channel 4, Turnbull appears to admit that the company is in the business of preying on people's fears. "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," he says in the video. "It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion, it’s all about emotion.”
That aptly describes fears about about Cambridge Analytica's so-called psychographic profiling, which aims to target people with ads based on their personality type. The company reportedly depended heavily on that trove of 50 million Facebook users' data to develop these profiles. That data was acquired via a third-party researcher, who created an app that asked users to take a personality quiz. Nearly 300,000 people downloaded that app, thereby handing the researcher—and Cambridge Analytica—access not only to their own personal data, but that of their friends. In 2015, Facebook officially closed the loophole that gave app developers the ability to suck up people's friends' data as well. Facebook also made Cambridge sign a legally binding agreement that it had deleted the data that year, but over the weekend, sources close to the company told WIRED that data was still visible to employees within Cambridge in early 2017. Facebook has since suspended SCL and Cambridge Analytica's access to the platform, while it investigates. SCL and Cambridge maintain the data was deleted in 2015.
Turnbull does appear to express doubt about these methods. In a Channel 4 video of a December 2017 meeting, he says: "So we’re not in the business of fake news, we’re not in the business of lying, making stuff up, and we’re not in the business of entrapment, so we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t send a pretty girl out to seduce a politician and then film them in their bedroom and then release the film. There are companies that do this but to me that crosses a line." Turnbull, though, was present for prior meetings in which such tactics were discussed.
In a phone call captured in the Channel 4 video, executives openly boast about working "in the shadows" because, as Nix explains to the reporters, "we have many clients who never wish to have our relationship with them made public.” Nix notes that the company often sets up fake IDs and websites. "We can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists," he explains in the video of the January 2018 meeting.
Turnbull appears to make the same claim in the video of the December 2017 meeting, in which he says that the company would create "a different entity, with a different name, so that no record exists with our name attached to this at all, and I think we can work in that space as well.” One of the most mysterious aspects of SCL and its offshoot, Cambridge Analytica, is its organizational structure. The company includes a vast web of related businesses that even current and former employees struggle to truly comprehend.
In the same video of that December meeting, Turnbull plays up the company's ties to former British intelligence agents, who were part of MI5 and MI6. "They will find all the skeletons in his closet quietly, discreetly, and give you a report,” he explains.
The videos appear to offer unique insight into how Cambridge Analytica thinks about elections, although it doesn’t confirm that the company has actually done any of these things. It may just be bluster in an attempt to close a sale. And in a fuller response, Cambridge Analytica strongly disputed the report.
"The report is edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business," the company said in a statement Monday, maintaining that it was the reporter who introduced topics like corruption and entrapment. "Assessing the legality and reputational risks associated with new projects is critical for us, and we routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions," the Cambridge statement says. "The two Cambridge Analytica executives at the meeting humoured these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to disclose his intentions. They left with grave concerns and did not meet with him again."
"In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our ‘client’ from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios," said Nix in the statement. "I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case. I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps’, and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose."1
Still, it presents an unflattering look at a group already steeped in controversy. And the full truth may come out soon regardless; following the release of the video, Britain's Information Officer, Elizabeth Denham, said she would seek a warrant to seize Cambridge Analytica's servers.
More Cambridge Analytica
- The data team the Trump campaign leaned on in 2016 has come into focus this week over the apparent misuse of the data of 50 million Facebook users
- What did Cambridge Analytica really do for Trump's 2016 campaign?
- A look at the company—and the controversy around it—from the summer of 2016
1This story has been updated to include further comment from Cambridge Analytica.