Shock and outrage has been the popular reaction to whistleblower Chris Wylie’s sensational revelation that facebook data of millions was used by Cambridge Analytica to psychologically manipulate the voters, in favour of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S and in favour of Brexit in Britain.
Facebook data - including likes and other personal information - of over 300,000 users in U.S who consented to take up a personality test, along with that of their friends who had left their privacy settings in default mode, was captured by Aleksandr Kogan, who already had facebook’s permission to use the data for academic research. However, the data was made available to Cambridge Analytica, which had funded the 2 to 5 dollars paid to those users in exchange for taking the test.
Founded by Republican donor and hedge-fund billionaire, Robert Mercer, and the alt-right hardliner, Stephen Bannon - who went on to become Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman and subsequently his White House adviser - Cambridge Analytica, which according to federal election record had received $5.9 million from Trump’s campaign, used this data along with other social media surveys to draw up psychological profiles of almost 220 million people, who were then targeted with personalized campaign ads to appeal to their fears, prejudices and biases.
Chris Wylie, who was previously employed by Strategic Communications Laboratory (SCL) - the parent company of Cambridge Analytica - said that the firm worked on creating “a web of disinformation online so people start going down the rabbit hole of clicking on blogs, websites etc. that make them think things are happening that may not be."
CEO and the director of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, boasted before Channel 4 reporter, who was posing as a potential client, that the firm ran all of Trump’s digital and television campaign, and that the data analyzed by the firm “informed all the strategy.” Explaining how Trump managed to win the electoral college despite losing the popular vote, the Chief data officer, unaware of being filmed in a sting operation, told the undercover reporter: “That’s down to the data and the research. If you did your rallies in the right locations, you moved more people out in those key swing states on Election Day, that’s how he won the election.”
No doubt that this gloating by the officials of the firm is bound to have an element of exaggeration, since the officials recorded were attempting to impress the undercover reporter posing as a potential client who might give out a lucrative contract to the firm to carry out a similar propaganda to help a party in Sri-Lankan elections. As an article in The Verge warned, Cambridge Analytica cannot be given all credit for Trump’s victory, as the power to manipulate people’s political leanings by using psychographic analysis made from such data is limited.
However, since the victory won by Trump was by such a small margin - where a lead of 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin respectively determined the final outcome of the election - the campaign carried out by Cambridge Analytica may arguably have played a decisive role, even if only a small percent of the people targeted were actually swayed by the psychological manipulation.
Such was also the case with Brexit referendum, in which the Leave vote won by a narrow margin of 3.8% over the Remain vote. In Britain, ‘Vote Leave’, which was the official campaigner for the leave campaign, paid £3.9 million to a firm called Aggregate IQ, with the three other affiliated campaigners coughing up another £757,750. This Canadian firm - also linked to Robert Mercer - set up to work for SCL (the parent firm of Cambridge Analytica), has been described by Wylie as the “Canadian arm of Cambridge Analytica”, in his testimony before the U.K parliament.
In a document titled “Big Data Solutions for the EU Referendum” produced by Cambridge Analytica for a pro-Brexit campaigner, Leave EU, the firm gloated: “We use vast amounts of data, including consumer histories, lifestyle information... and state-of-the-art psychological analysis.” An example of using this “state-of-the-art” psychological analysis includes, among others, the art of identifying those who show signs of paranoia over migrants, to bombard them with false stories such as, “Turkey would join the EU in 2020, flooding the UK with millions of migrants,” Evening Standard reported.
“This really is dabbling in the dark arts,” a former Tory business minister Anna Soubry said, expressing concerns about this kind of micro-targeting people whose psychological traits have been profiled. “If this takes place ‘under the radar’ then there is no way for people to complain or question what they are seeing in the privacy of reading their phone in their living room.”
Were it not for the practice of this “dark art”, into which enormous amounts of money - allegedly exceeding what is permissible under law - was channeled, the outcome of the referendum “could have been different”, Chris Wylie told the U.K parliament.
Such manipulation of voters happening “anywhere near a democracy” is an “extraordinary scandal”, said Prof. David Miller of Bath University, an authority in psychological operations. “It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open [as to] where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.”
From the deep bowels of defense establishment rose a Frankenstein’s monster
It was not from Russia, but from the deep bowels of British and American defense establish that this Frankenstein’s monster was raised. Strategic Communications Laboratories, of which Cambridge Analytica is merely an offshoot, went public in 2005 at UK’s largest exhibition for military technology. With "an array of Lords, Tory donors, ex-British army officers and defense contractors" sitting on its board, this firm, by its own admission on its website, provides “data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide,” and has conducted “behavioral change programs” in more than 60 countries.
Its client list, according a Scottish publication Bella Caledonia, includes: the US State Department, which has a contract for $500,000 with the firm for provision of research and analytical support to assist it in countering terrorist propaganda; the British Ministry of Defence, which paid the firm £40,000 in 2010/11 for “provision of external training” and another £150,000 for the “procurement of target audience analysis” in 2014/15; and the NATO, from which one of its umbrella organisations, SCL defense, received a million Canadian dollars in 2015 in exchange for training in “advanced counter-propaganda techniques designed to help member states assess and counter Russia’s propaganda in Eastern Europe”. This training, according to NATO, helped “Ukrainians better defend themselves against the Russian threat.”
Presided by Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former Defense Minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, this firm's board of directors includes a former British special forces officer, Roger Gabb; the founder of counter-terrorism Eden Intelligence firm, Gavin McNicoll; and a former assistant director of naval warfare in the Ministry of Defence and aide de camp to the Queen, Rear Admiral John Tolhurst.
According to 2013 documents of the company reviewed by Quartz, SCL has worked on elections “in 32 countries across Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean,” typically charging its clients anything between $200,000 and $2 million. Between 2003-12, the firm has worked in India in 8 different elections, providing a variety of services.
Before running manipulative campaigns for Brexit, Aggregate IQ - the firm characterized by Wylie as the Canadian offshoot of Cambridge Analytica - took practice in Trinidad and Tobago. With a $200,000 contract from SCL to help Congress of the People party, the firm was tasked with “harvesting browsing history, social media data and IP addresses that could be linked to home addresses or census data - in short, behavioural data that would ‘contribute to the development of psychographic profiling in the region,’” CBC reported after accessing a copy of the contract.
SCL’s Elections managing director, Mark Turnbull - who was filmed in the Channel 4’s sting operation along with Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix - is also the Managing Director of the political division of Cambridge Analytica, which, until last year, carried on its website the logos of UK Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Sandia and NATO with a statement that the firm’s methods have been approved by these bodies.
Previously, Turnbull had worked for 18 years with Bell Pottinger, which received $540 million dollars by the Pentagon for working alongside U.S military for running fake news and false flags during the Iraq war. Producing fake Al-Qaeda videos and dropping the CDs in specific locations to trace who watched it and from where, was one of the most sensitive operations the firm was involved in Iraq.
The firm had also been receiving a monthly pay of £100,000 by one of its clients, Oakbay Capital, owned by the powerful and infamous Gupta family in South Africa, which has been accused of corruption and unscrupulous profiteering from its close association with Ex-President Jacob Zuma. The firm ran a secret “social media and PR campaign in South Africa focused on ‘economic apartheid’” before “disciplinary sanction” was imposed on it by the UK’s public relations trade body for stirring up racial tensions on behalf of its billionaire client, the Guardian reported.
After 18 years in this company, Turnbull has now been offering his valuable service to Cambridge Analytica - a company which, in Wylie’s words, “goes around the world and undermines civic institutions of.. countries that are struggling to develop those institutions.” “They”, he said, “are an example of what modern day colonialism looks like. You have a wealthy company from a developed nation going into an economy, or a democracy, that is still struggling to get.. its feet on the ground, and taking advantage of that to profit..”
But how long before the monster turned to Frankenstein? How long before such sorcerous powers to disrupt foreign democracies, conferred on private for-profit firms by the highest echelons of Anglo-American political-defense establishment, are summoned to disrupt democracy at home? History has answered.