The phrase ‘Cambridge Analytica’ has been circulating news cycles lately, and its fair to wonder why. Like a majority of stories and buzzwords populating the mainstream Trending feeds for over two years now, the behavioral research and strategic communication company is relevant because it has close ties to the Trump campaign for president. And, while most of their supposedly controversial activities have been painted in far more grandiose terms than are justified, an allegation which arose from a months-long dirt-fishing expedition does cast doubt on the firm’s tactics and means in aiding its political clients’ success.
Cambridge Analytica is a privately-held strategic communications firm that has offices in London, New York, and Washington. The firm was founded in 2013, having branched from the British firm Strategic Communication Laboratories, or SCL, in order to allow them to participate in U.S. political races. A bit of background on SCL is also important to understand the capabilities of Cambridge Analytica, whose leadership’s connections and proven track record have made it a popular employee of several conservative presidential nominees, as well as many others.
A Politico profile of Cambridge Analytica’s connection with then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz illuminates the wide range of services that the company provides. Notably, SCL – which has a longer track record from which one can extrapolate services rendered by its offshoot Cambridge Analytica – has used data mining, behavioral analytics, and strategic communication for causes as innocuous as social media branding as well as ones as critical as military disinformation campaigns and aiding in the fomentation of coup attempts.
‘Cambridge Analytica is connected to a British firm called SCL Group, which provides governments, political groups and companies around the world with services ranging from military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting.
So far, SCL’s political work has been mostly in the developing world — where it has boasted of its ability to help foment coups. Cambridge Analytica entered the competitive U.S. political data market only last year.’ (Politico)
This wide-spanning range of tasks fulfilled by SCL, and by extension Cambridge Analytica, leads to a couple of conclusions; a) Cambridge will work for virtually anybody who will pay the right price for their services, from governments to private clients, and b) their capabilities are top-notch, suitable for governments which have blank checks to issue to those they believe will be most effective at collecting data that will allow them to then alter public opinion on a given issue, from wars to elections.
All of this said, SCL and Cambridge Analytica are far from anomalies. Stratagem formed from the all-too-available information we put on the internet is a norm in politics, government, and the private sector, not the exception. Companies that are employed by those wishing to tap into and manipulate our thoughts and proclivities are ample. The primary reason we are hearing so much about Cambridge Analytica is, quite simply, that they have been employed by the Trump campaign, and therefore any mention of their tactics – tactics which are virtually universal in their professional space – will be painted in unduly controversial terms.
For evidence of this, consider that Cambridge first worked for Ted Cruz’s campaign, only switching allegiances when it became clear that Trump would be the favorite. Robert Mercer, the billionaire co-owner of Cambridge, has donated an estimated $34.9 million to Republican political campaigns since 2006 and tends to put his money on the person he believes most likely to win. Cambridge was involved in an estimated 44 political campaigns in the U.S. alone in 2014, with little to no fanfare.
Once the analytics firm was attached to Trump, they became – like virtually everybody and everything else in his sphere of influence – a target to be painted in the most negative terms. Despite Marco Rubio’s campaign employing Optimus Consulting, a rival of Cambridge’s, and John Kasich employing competing firm Applecart, it is Cambridge who has drawn ire and well-funded campaigns to find dirt on the company and, by connection, its highest-profile client.
For the most part, these efforts have been fruitless. The narrative that the Trump campaign willfully tapped into the data of unwitting Facebook users is rife with holes. If you are still unaware that Facebook makes its revenue solely from selling your data to businesses which it has more-than-willingly granted access, then it’s far too late. You have – hell, all of us have – been targeted by advertisers who know in which city you live, what you order online, and thanks for the open invite via Mark Zuckerberg, who your friends are, what you “like,” and what you post.
The idea that political analytics firms wouldn’t get in on the completely legal practice of mining your data in order to find out how to best target you for persuasion is naïve in the extreme. It’s not Cambridge Analytics you should be mad at if you are feeling duped and violated by Facebook-sanctioned data mining. Quite frankly, you should only be kicking yourself for not knowing better.
There is one brewing controversy, however, which has cast a pall over Cambridge Analytica’s greater methods and prompted questions about the lengths to which they will go to increase the odds of client satisfaction. There’s little doubt that a four-month investigation conducted by British Channel 4 News – a verifiable fishing expedition – would never have been opened nor continuously funded had Cambridge not been so closely associated with Donald Trump. Still, that expedition was opened and was continuously funded, and the results appear on the surface to be troublesome, to say the least.
The report from Channel 4 includes a 19-plus minute video, in which CEO of Cambridge, Alexander Nix, is caught on camera apparently suggesting some less-than-condonable tactics that would undoubtedly favor political clients of his firm. Before proceeding, consider that Cambridge has issued a press release characterizing the report as a ‘mischaracterization’ of Nix and the firm, levying the same allegation of entrapment against Channel 4 that the news outlet has insinuated Cambridge is guilty of.
But, what the video does show – surreptitiously edited as it may be – can be easily taken to be evidence of borderline-illegal political tactics, whether that is fair or not.
‘In one exchange, when asked about digging up material on political opponents, Mr. Nix said they could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well.”’ (Channel 4)
This quote pertains to a Ukrainian election in which Cambridge has some involvement, or at least is pitching its involvement for, and it is far from the only quote that elicits question.
‘In another he said: “We’ll 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, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.”’
It’s hard to imagine that this scenario applies to Donald Trump, who has professed to be the king of self-financing, but again, it casts into doubt the methods of a firm with which his campaign directly associated. That doubt is seen as the crack in the dam which Trump’s opponents will work their hardest to ensure becomes a massive fissure. As Channel 4 points out, offering bribes to public officials is a crime in most nations. And, it appears that averting legal parameters may be par for the course for Cambridge, alleged as the practices are.
“…Many of our clients don’t want to be seen to be working with a foreign company… so often we set up, if we are working then we can set up fake IDs and websites, we can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists, there’s so many options we can look at. I have lots of experience in this.”
The investigation also included conversations with Mark Turnbull, the managing director of CA Political Global, and the company’s chief data officer, Dr. Alex Tayler, minimizing the odds that Nix was some kind of rogue actor within the firm. Clearly a shrewd man with experience in how to avoid the public’s suspicion, Turnbull explained the line between what Cambridge does and classical propaganda, insinuating that, in reality, they aren’t all that different.
“… 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?’.”
Ultimately, these tactics fall on the shoulders of Cambridge should they be found guilty of the acts and potential crimes that these reports would seem to indicate. The firm has refuted the charges unequivocally, attributing them to lack of context and deceptive editing. Still, one can’t help but draw conclusions from quotes that seem so frankly unequivocal and spin-proof.
This has been and will continue to be used as more ammo against Trump’s association with questionable parties. How questionable those parties are and to what extent the Trump campaign was aware of their use of alleged shady tactics will take some time to hammer down. In the meantime, the court of public opinion will largely assume both Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign as guilty, even if eventually proven not to be. Even then, this stain will not fade immediately.