Christopher Wylie told a select committee earlier that the pro-Brexit campaign had a “common plan” to use a network of companies to get around election spending laws and said he thought there “could have been a different outcome had there not been, in my view, cheating”.
He added: “It makes me so angry, because a lot of people supported leave because they believe in the application of British law and British sovereignty. And to irrevocably alter the constitutional settlement of this country on fraud is a mutilation of the constitutional settlement of this country.”
Of course, Vote Leave has repeatedly denied allegations of collusion or deliberate overspending. When they first surfaced over the weekend, Boris Johnson, who fronted the campaign, ranted: “Vote Leave won fair and square – and legally. We are leaving the EU in a year and going global.”
Wylie, who sparked the scandal around alleged misappropriation of Facebook data by his old employer, has also said that its micro-targeting efforts were 10 times more effective that those of rival companies. However, the framing of the debate ought to include the intent that motivates the use of those methods, and the implications for democracy.
Wylie gave his evidence in a four-hour session before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. He made a number of remarkable claims about Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, including that his predecessor, Dan Mursean, died mysteriously in a Kenyan hotel room in 2012 after a contract in the company “turned sour.”
Wylie commented that it was striking that Vote Leave and three other pro-Brexit groups – BeLeave, which targeted students; Veterans for Britain, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party – all used the services of the little-known firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ) to help target voters online.
Cambridge Analytica have responded:
“Today the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard false information, speculation, and completely unfounded conspiracy theories from a witness regarding Cambridge Analytica.
Chris Wylie has misrepresented himself and the company to the committee, and previously to the news media. He admits himself that what he says is speculation and therefore we feel it is important to set out the actual facts which are as follows.
Chris Wylie was a part-time contractor who left Cambridge Analytica in July 2014 and has no direct knowledge of the company’s work or practices since that date. He was at the company for less than a year, after which he was made the subject of restraining undertakings to prevent his misuse of the company’s intellectual property while attempting to set up his own rival firm. He was not, as he claims, a founder of Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica does not hold any GSR data or any data derived from GSR data. We have never shared the GSR data with Aggregate IQ, Palantir or any other entity. Cambridge Analytica did not use any GSR data in the work that we did for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign.
Cambridge Analytica subcontracted some digital marketing and software development to Aggregate IQ in 2014 and 2015. The suggestion that Cambridge Analytica was somehow involved in any work done by Aggregate IQ in the 2016 EU referendum is entirely false.
Beyond an early-stage sales pitch to Vote Leave, Cambridge Analytica had no interaction with that group or any of their vendors. We have never had any contact with Eldon Insurance. We played no role in the UK referendum on EU membership.
We are disgusted that Mr Wylie would use the tragic death of a member of our team as a means to further his own agenda. An investigation by Kenyan authorities concluded that there was nothing suspicious about our colleague’s death, and we as a company were deeply saddened by the loss.
Cambridge Analytica has never worked with or been in contact with Black Cube in any capacity.
Attempts by Mr Wylie to link a prospective commercial pilot project, for a small number of gas stations in Turkey, with politics and Russia are absurd.
We take allegations of unethical practices in the past by our former global (non-US) political consultancy very seriously, and they are currently the subject of a full and independent investigation which we have instigated to establish the facts. Its findings will be made available in due course.
The facts above also apply to Cambridge Analytica’s affiliate companies.”
CA and affiliates are now busy trying to discredit some of their own previous claims.
CA’s political research entails “The process of collecting valuable information on voters, opposition, and trends. This provides the fullest possible picture of voter behavior”.
The company describe themselves as “the market leader in the provision of data analytics and behavioral communications for political campaigns, issue groups and commercial enterprises. With cutting-edge technology, pioneering data science, and over 25 years of experience in behavior change, CA provides advertisers with unparalleled insight into their audiences.”
The normalisation of manipulation and ‘behavioural modification’
Last year, CA were announced as a winner in the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) 2017 David Ogilvy Awards. The company’s campaign “Make America Number One” took the Gold honor in the “big data category” for its “successful work targeting undecided voters during the 2016 presidential election.” (A pro-Trump propaganda campaign using ‘behavioural science’, which was designed from the detailed data that was held, on millions of unsuspecting US citizens). ARF have basically endorsed Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) general corporate practices of data mining and psychographic modeling.
This indicates just how normalised data mining and behavioural modification techniques have become within the PR/consultation/strategic messaging/advertising industry. As someone on the outside of the industry, it’s only possible to get a glimpse of the methods used, as the language use is kind of coded, in a context-dependent sort of way – and therefore, operates as a sort of closed system to people who don’t get the references in managementspeak acronyms and behavioural economics. Many sites don’t permit full access to information unless you are one of their members.
It struck me during Chris Wylie’s commentary about the use of “behavioural science” that his language reflected the central ideas of nudge theories, he was using words like “heuristics”, “cognitive bias” and so on. He outlined the basic premise of nudge, too – the idea that humans are fundamentally ‘irrational’. (Yet curiously, those ‘choice architects’ claiming that they know what is best for society and individual citizens are exempt from that theory).
It resonated with something I said a few years ago: that it was only a matter of time before governments started using nudge to influence citizen voting. It was pretty reasonable, as it turns out, to believe that sooner or later, we were going to see widespread manipulation of people’s decision-making, including in elections.
Back in 2016, Wired wrote an article called 25 GENIUSES WHO ARE CREATING THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS, in which it says: “Alexander Nix wants to turn mad men into psychologists. For too long, he says, demographics and purchasing behavior have been the primary guideposts of the marketing industry, used to guess what a target audience might want.
“Nix’s company, Cambridge Analytica, can provide psychological profiling to help advertisers tailor their messages to specific personality types.
“The firm groups people according to where they fall on the so-called OCEAN scale, which psychologists use to measure how open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable, or neurotic they are. Cambridge surveyed hundreds of thousands of people across the US to generate a statistical model to predict these traits in the broader population.
“Using Cambridge’s data, marketers combine a key trait with generic demographic information and then craft a message that’s more likely to appeal to that type. So for someone who’s neurotic, the message would play to fears about a subject. Agreeable people, on the other hand, gravitate toward information about how a given product or idea will benefit society.”
Even IPSOS are now defining themselves as a ‘behavioural data group’, the head of the company, Nicolas Brézet, says, earlier this year: “Marketers seek a holistic understanding of consumers’ multi-platform digital behavior, touchpoints, activities, and content consumption. Single-source data can’t tell the whole picture, so new approaches are needed.
This presentation discusses how Ipsos combined survey data with behavioral data, found an actionable framework, and then made client recommendation. Case studies illustrate how they used their approach with five different clients.
The presentation also indicates what’s coming next: appending multiple behavioral sources to survey data for an even more holistic, unified picture that can be done today.”
So this is a research and polling company that is gathering data on citizens, including behavioural data, that
may will be used by paying clients. Details of citizens’ psychological and behavioural profiles are being sold as a commodity. To anyone who wants them, apparently.
No-one seemed to mind when David Cameron instituted the Nudge Unit back in 2010. Suddenly people were bandying about the phrase “behavioural change” casually. I was horrified precisely because of what I saw as the dire implications for democracy, back then – techniques of psychological manipulation in the hands of an authoritarian government. What could possibly go right?
Contemporary behavioural science “aims to exploit our irrationalities” since choice architects – which quickly included government ministers – view us “as manipulable subjects rather than rational agents.” Hardly anyone asked back then who was nudging the nudgers. Few questioned that the government really had our “best interests” at heart.
It’s only now that we are getting a glimpse of new behavioural economics discipline evolving into forms of social control that make the frightful 20th-century totalitarianism regimes seem like a primitive and crude method of governance by comparison. This all-pervasive control is hidden in plain view. It’s a subtle and stealthy form of totalitarianism. Someone described behavioural science and its various applications as a new “cognitive-military complex” – it originated within intelligence and state security agencies – I think that is an apt description.
The consequences of governments acting upon citizens to meet political aims, and to align behaviours with a totalising neoliberal ideology, turns democracy completely on its head. We are left with a form of inverted totalitarianism, or facade democracy, where direct methods of oppression are not required, as citizens are far easier to control and better “nudged” when they continue to believe themselves free and autonomous.
Opaque and interrelated operations
Aleksandr Kogan founded Global Science Research in 2014, after the Cambridge university’s psychology department quite properly refused to allow him to use its own pool of data for commercial purposes. The data collection that Kogan undertook independent of the university, where he worked as a lecturer, was done on behalf of a military contractor called Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). The company’s election division claims to use “data-driven messaging” as part of “delivering electoral success.”
The purpose of Kogan’s work was to develop an algorithm for the “national profiling capacity of American citizens” as part of SCL’s work on US elections, according to an internal document signed by an SCL employee describing the research. In 2016, In September 2016, Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, said that the company built a model based on “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans” filling out personality surveys, generating a “model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” CA, as we know, is a front for SCL.
Lynton Crosby an Jim Messina
Listening to Chris Wylie’s evidence yesterday to the parliamentary committee, I realised that many companies of this ilk (offering PR, data anaysis and segregation, strategic communications, consultancy, behavioural change and ‘conversion’) are probably fronts, shells or opaque partnerships. I researched the Conservatives’ spending on similar companies in the run-up to last year’s general election. Jim Messina, for example, set up a company called Outra, which also employs Lynton Crosby.
The company was hired by the government in the last General Election, along with Messina Inc and the CrosbyTextor Group. You have to wonder what that process is hiding. Outra were paid £120,000. Crosby Textor (listed as CTF) also earned £4,037,400 for market research/canvassing. Messina Group Inc were also paid £544,153.57 for transport, advertising, market research and canvassing. This company uses data analytics and ‘intelligence’ services. (There is a lot more research into the companies used and
The company conducts “Targeted Ads Programs [….] ensuring precise targeting via Facebook, geo-targeting, zipcodes, IP addresses, and other tactics”.
The company also says:
The Messina Group are in a ‘strategic partnership’ with Outra serving as one of Outra’s primary advisors on data, analytics, and ‘customer engagement.’
British electoral law forbids co-ordination between different campaign groups, which must all comply with strict spending limits. If they plan tactics or co-ordinate together, the organisations must share a cap on spending. (I’ve written more about what private data, communication and advertising companies the government used for their election campaign last year, and the costs here.
Wylie said yesterday: “When you work in a lot of countries, it is beneficial to have different billing names on invoices… the paperwork looks confined”. The companies share their data with each other, too. If one of those companies breaches data laws, technically, they all do, but by listing front companies with different roles, it isolates a potential problem. On the surface, that is. It’s a mafia-styled co-ordinated franchise.
Subcontracting, ‘strategic partnerships’, alliances and front companies hide the dubious processes these companies use, very well. The way the companies are set up and their interconnected relationships is deliberately confusing. The way governments present them in their expenses declarations is also purposefully opaque. Combobulate, which is listed as a management consultancy, earned £43,200 for research/canvassing and for ‘unsolicited material to electors’, yet I could not find any website for the company.
The director is listed as Nicholas Jack Walton Mason, also listed as the director of Uplifting Data. Mason is also listed as Director of Mason Investment Consultants Limited, which was dissolved via compulsory strike-off .
Wylie said: “AggregateIO was just a money laundering exercise”.
He also said: “You have to remember this is a company that’s gone around the world and undermined democratic institutions in all kinds of countries. They couldn’t care less if their work is compliant because they like to win.”
Money talks, bullshit walks. Welcome to the marketisation of democracy itself.
Wylie continued “It’s not just the data or psyops”, it’s the implications for global democracy.”
However, if it wasn’t for the data mining and psyops, democracy wouldn’t be in such peril.
From THE BAD BOYS OF BREXIT by Arron Bank, ironically, written with the help of Isabel Oakshott
When asked what Wylie thought the legal implications of a European Company processing raw data on a population at an ISP level were, he basically said that it would be a breech of data protection and privacy laws. Privacy and data protection are part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in Europe. Being established in Delaware does not exempt you from Data Protection. If Data is processed in Europe then data protection and privacy laws apply.
Wylie also links SCL to the Home Office Prevent Programme. I bet my entire collection of ‘Behaviourism, theory, practice and how to cover your tracks’ and ‘How tyrants misuse psychology’ that they will be linked to other many Conservative policy programmes too.
You can watch the full parliament evidence session here.
The video below shows a series of some of the key moments.
My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others.