Trump Data Gurus Leave Long Trail of Subterfuge, Dubious Dealing
Last fall, the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica gained fame as the group of nerdy British data scientists that helped Donald Trump get elected. The firm says it’s able to use its “psychographic data models” to sway undecided voters by targeting people’s social media profiles and serving up messages and ads based on their perceived biases.
Cambridge Analytica now hopes to leverage that success—and its ties to Trump—to do more business with the U.S. government. Working from offices just blocks from the White House, it’s been pitching itself to defense and national security agencies. In February it signed a $500,000 U.S. State Department contract to fight radicalization of young people abroad.
While Cambridge Analytica has faced scrutiny before over whether its data models actually work, a closer look at the past practices of its London-based affiliate, SCL Group Ltd., reveals a corporate DNA less predisposed to dazzling technologies to sway voters than to using old-fashioned tricks and political subterfuge.
Alexander Nix set up Cambridge Analytica in 2013 to target the U.S. market, installing himself as chief executive officer after 14 years as a director of SCL. In the past year, Nix, 41, has become a darling in tech and marketing circles, popping up on the international speaking circuit to promote the firm’s data-driven approach. He says Cambridge Analytica is active in national campaigns on four continents, yet he admits the sudden fame may have a downside. “It could be a double-edged sword,” he says. “We might lose clients who don’t want to have a more high-profile company working for them. Previously we were able to do our job in the background.”
In Latvia, SCL said it ran a campaign in 2006 designed to stoke tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russian residents: “In essence, Russians were blamed for unemployment and other problems affecting the economy,” an SCL document said. Nix confirms the firm’s role, saying that its research found that such tensions would “influence voting behavior.”
SCL’s website says it advised the Latvian candidate Ainars Slesers and his running mate, Andris Skele, in 2010. While their party alliance won eight seats in Parliament, it never joined the governing coalition. Marcis Bendiks, who advised Skele and was asked by the alliance to examine why it did so poorly, says SCL subcontracted its polling to a local company, Latvijas Fakti, but never paid it for the work. Aigars Freimanis, the company’s founder and adviser to the current Latvian prime minister, confirmed SCL never paid up. “It was amateurish,” says Bendiks. “We were extremely suspicious about the claims they could do this. … They never had the capacity to make a decent poll themselves.” Nix says he provided a 148-page report to the party and that SCL wasn’t responsible for paying the polling agency. Freimanis disputes this, saying his contract was with SCL. Slesers declined to comment.
According to documents seen by Bloomberg, SCL says it helped a candidate in Trinidad by spraying graffiti slogans that appeared to be the work of young Trinidadians. “The client was then able to ‘adopt’ related policies and claim credit for listening to a ‘united youth,’ ” SCL documents show. Nix acknowledges advocating the use of “street media” such as graffiti and fly posters and says it’s “normal election practice in many of the Caribbean islands.” The work was for the United National Congress, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia, SCL did a research project for the government to understand how to stem rising crime, according to its marketing presentations. Hoping to build on its work there, the firm offered to help Prime Minister Stephenson King on his 2011 reelection campaign for free, according to a former employee. In return, after getting reelected, the government of St. Lucia would pay SCL $1.9 million to run a public-health campaign focusing on smoking and obesity, the person said. The source claims that the actual cost of the health campaign was $1 million, and that the $900,000 difference was supposed to go toward back payments to SCL for election work. King lost, and the development project never happened. Nix says they didn’t work on the 2011 election campaign. King, now St. Lucia’s infrastructure, powers, energy, and labor minister, declined to comment.
SCL also played a role in the 2007 general election in Nigeria, which was won by the late Umaru Yar’Adua’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). According to the U.K.’s Department for International Development, the 2007 elections were “the worst in Nigeria’s post-independence electoral history” due to widespread ballot box stuffing, falsification of votes, and “deliberate denial of election materials to perceived strongholds of the opposition.”
SCL’s original description of its work in Nigeria echoes some of those concerns. According to a 2016 version of its website, SCL advised the PDP to try to dissuade opposition supporters from voting. This was achieved, the website said, “by organizing anti-poll rallies on the day of the election.” SCL later revised its website to say it “advised its client to focus on discrediting their opponent’s electoral policy platform … by organizing rallies on the day of the election to highlight those shortcomings.” Without saying why the web wording changed, Nix denies that SCL has ever “undertaken any campaign to discourage voting or undermine the democratic process.” A party spokesman, Olisa Metuh, said he wasn’t aware of SCL’s work and couldn’t comment.
Cambridge Analytica’s role in the U.K.’s referendum on European Union membership is also unclear. “We did undertake some work with Leave.eu, but it’s been significantly overreported,” Nix said in a Feb. 8 interview with Bloomberg. Richard Tice, co-founder of Leave.eu, said on Feb. 23 that the campaign used SCL “to target supporters and the way we used our database, Facebook, Twitter, and website users.” He adds, “They massively increased the quality of targeting of data.”
But the story changed after the Observer reported on Feb. 26 that Cambridge Analytica had provided free services to Leave.eu, and raised questions about whether the work was an in-kind donation that should have been reported. Under U.K. Electoral Commission rules, campaigners are required to report all donations over £7,500 ($9,365). The commission confirmed that Leave.eu didn’t report any donation from Cambridge Analytica.
A few days later, Cambridge issued a statement denying any involvement in the campaign. Tice, reached again by phone, stood by his statements that the firm worked for Leave.eu and said of Cambridge Analytica’s denial, “Just put it down to politics.” A U.K. data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, said it’s contacted Cambridge Analytica because of concerns about its use of personal data. A Cambridge spokesman confirmed it’s in touch with the ICO and “happy to demonstrate that we are entirely compliant with the law.”
Nix graduated from the elite boarding school Eton College, as did SCL’s 55-year-old founder, Nigel Oakes. Oakes says on SCL’s website that he “was educated” at University College London, but there’s no record he studied there, says a university spokesman. Nix says Oakes attended UCL “in a private capacity.” Oakes also says he worked with Adrian Furnham, a UCL psychology professor, in 1989 as part of a group studying the “psychology of influence,” which he used as the philosophical underpinning of SCL’s methods.
Furnham disputes this. “He has made up many stories about working and studying here which are untrue,” he wrote in an email. “A colleague and I (Prof Barrie Gunter) did some desk research for him but cut ties because of his behavior. He seemed little interested in evidence.”
The bottom line: Before helping Trump win with its high-tech data models, Cambridge Analytica perfected a low-tech brand of political persuasion.