Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaks during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal
Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaks during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal

How Facebook's data scandal made Cambridge Analytica toxic

Political consulting firm has been implicated in major political developments in both the UK and America

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Thursday 03 May 2018 00:52
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In September of 2016, shortly before his company helped propel Donald Trump to an historic upset, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix took to the stage at a conference to talk about tailoring political messages to voter preferences.

Touting the “power of big data and psychographics in the electoral process”, referring to his company’s targeting technique, Mr Nix talked about slicing up the electorate and persuading voters with distinct appeals.

“Of the two candidates left in this election,” he said, “one of them is using these technologies and, it’s going to be very interesting to see how they impact the next seven weeks”.

Two years later, the term “big data” has become more likely to evoke abuse than technical wizardry. Cambridge Analytica announced it would cease operations, succumbing to the firestorm ignited by revelations that the company had improperly obtained data encompassing as many as 87 million Facebook profiles.

The company denies wrongdoing, saying it deleted disputed data - contradicting Facebook’s account - and denying using the data for the Trump campaign. But as the scandal metastasized, virtually all of its customers fled, the firm said in a statement.

Cambridge Analytica’s collapse punctuated a broader political reckoning. As politicians sought to understand the twinned political cataclysms of Brexit and Mr Trump’s election, question about online privacy and targeted data would become paramount.

During the 2016 presidential election, few political observers believed the poorly-polling Trump campaign would prevail over Democrat Hillary Clinton’s operation. When American voters chose Mr Trump, campaign officials credited a sophisticated online advertising campaign that maximised the precision of Facebook - and at first, Cambridge Analytica.

“We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences”, top aide Jared Kushner told Forbes in November of 2016. “After the primary, we started ramping up because we knew that doing a national campaign is different than doing a primary campaign … We brought in Cambridge Analytica.”

The Trump campaign paid some $5.9m (£4.35m) to the firm, according to federal disclosures, a windfall that came on top of the $5.8m that Cambridge Analytica had earned from vanquished Republican challenger Ted Cruz.

Those payments were not Cambridge Analytica’s only ties to the Trump campaign. The firm also drew financial backing from billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah. The family was reportedly a major benefactor of the far-right website Breitbart News, whose chief Steve Bannon would become a central adviser to Mr Trump.

Mark Zuckerberg admits ‘my mistake’ as 87m Facebook users could have seen data accessed by Cambridge Analytica

But by October, campaign officials were backing away. In an interview with 60 Minutes, the campaign’s data guru Brad Parscale trumpeted the power of Facebook cast doubt on the efficacy of Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic targeting tactics, echoing anonymous Republican officials who were increasingly quoted disparaging the technique.

“I don’t believe it’s sinister”, Mr Parscale said. “I just don’t think it works.”

Later that month, in a preview of the storm to come, Cambridge Analytica would face an initial wave of scrutiny over its election tactics after it was reported Mr Nix had reached out to WikiLeaks Founder CEO Julian Assange - whose organisation released a cascade of documents buoying the Trump campaign - to locate emails Ms Clinton had allegedly deleted from a private server. Mr Assange confirmed the contact occurred.

Swiftly moving to create distance, Trump campaign executive director Michael Glassner pointedly did not mention Cambridge Analytica in a statement about the campaign’s data operation, lauding the Republican National Committee’s analytics work as “the most sophisticated data-targeting program in modern American history” and saying its experts were “our main source for data analytics”.

“Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false," Mr Glassner said.

The House Intelligence Committee hauled Mr Nix in for questioning. Later, after the Facebook data scandal broke, Democrats on the committee would accuse Mr Nix of lying when he came before them.

In 2018, Mr Nix was again facing politicians - but this time in Parliament, where legislators pressed him on allegations that Cambridge Analytica had boosted the Brexit campaign.

While Mr Nix denied that Cambridge Analytica did not work on the referendum with any organisation, he was contradicted by whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s testimony and documents published by MPs that showed Cambridge Analytica had a tentative agreement with the group Leave.EU.

By the time Mr Nix appeared before Parliament, Cambridge Analytica had been booted from Facebook, UK authorities had raided his company’s London office and he had been suspended as CEO after an undercover video showed him discussing bribery and entrapment as political techniques.

But Cambridge Analytica’s fall may well be remembered for embodying surging scepticism of politicking in the age of big data. In a statement announcing its closure, the company faulted having been “vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising”.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, saw it differently. “The dark arts have arrived in full force online,” Mr Schiff told Channel 4 News, “and they need to be ferreted out”.

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